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Omicron may change pandemic course without action, WHO warns

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 4 hrs ago Globe staff
Pedestrians walked past a drive-through COVID-19 testing center on Dec. 06, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. © Mario Tama Pedestrians walked past a drive-through COVID-19 testing center on Dec. 06, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.

Scientists are working to learn more about a new COVID-19 variant, Omicron, that was first detected in South Africa, setting out to discover how transmissible it is, whether the vaccines that are currently available are effective against it, and other answers as much is still unknown about the strain.

In order to shore up protection against the virus amid data that show immunity wanes from the vaccines over time, US health officials have expanded their recommendations for who should get COVID-19 booster shots, now suggesting all adults get the additional doses. The expansion comes as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rise in Massachusetts, in what experts fear is another surge as winter approaches and people gather inside.

Below, we’re gathering the latest news and updates on coronavirus in New England and beyond.

  Dec. 8, 2021  

Correction officers’ union sues NYC over vaccine mandate — 10:33 p.m.

By The Associated Press

A coronavirus vaccine mandate for the city’s jail workers should be blocked, the union representing the workers said in a lawsuit filed Wednesday that calls for a return to allowing regular virus testing and blasts the city-required 12-hour shifts that were implemented in anticipation of mandate-related staffing shortages.

In the lawsuit, filed in state Supreme Court in Manhattan, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association said city officials were “unnecessarily exposing their employees to negative impacts to their health, welfare and safety.”

The city had made a Nov. 30 deadline for Department of Correction workers to get at least one vaccine dose or face suspension without pay. That deadline had been delayed a month because of existing staffing shortages in the city’s jail system, most notoriously at the troubled Rikers Island complex.

In a statement, the city’s law department said, “The city is grateful for every officer who has gotten vaccinated. We’re confident the mandate and the 12 hour shifts will be upheld by the court.”

The latest numbers on how many officers have been suspended was unavailable, but at the time of the deadline last week the city said several hundred could be facing suspension over not getting vaccinated.

Senate votes to scrap Biden vaccine mandate as Republicans eye 2022 — 10:31 p.m.

By The New York Times

The Senate on Wednesday voted narrowly to roll back President Joe Biden’s vaccine and testing mandate for large employers, taking mostly symbolic action as Republicans escalate their protest of the administration’s push to immunize Americans against a deadly pandemic.

The vote was bipartisan, as two centrist Democrats — Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana — joined all 50 Republicans in voting to overturn the regulation, which has already been blocked amid a wave of litigation by large employers and Republican-controlled states. The House is not expected to take up the measure, and administration officials said Biden would veto it should it reach his desk.

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Finland’s prime minister apologizes after partying all night despite coronavirus exposure — 9:08 p.m.

By The Washington Post

It was Saturday evening when Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin learned that a cabinet colleague and close contact had tested positive for the coronavirus. That information, however, did not derail her weekend plans, and the leader proceeded to party at a Helsinki nightclub until the wee hours, with photos showing her maskless in a crowd.

Marin, who is fully vaccinated, later apologized for what she described as an indiscretion, yet images from that night have since gone viral, prompting both outrage at what critics deemed irresponsible behavior and international admiration for the stamina of the world’s youngest prime minister, who stayed out until 4 a.m., according to one report.

The 36-year-old Social Democrat did not violate the country’s public health rules, as Finland does not require vaccinated people to quarantine. But guidance does “strongly recommend that you voluntarily avoid contact with people outside your household” while waiting for access to a test or results of one.

Marin said a staffer initially informed her that there was no need to quarantine because everyone exposed was vaccinated. She did not question that instruction, she said, because it was similar to the health agency’s guidelines. A subsequent text message to Marin’s government phone asked everyone who came in contact with the positive case, Foreign Affairs Minister Pekka Haavisto, to avoid contact with others. She didn’t receive that message until Sunday morning, she said, because she had left her work phone at home during her night out, which included a long stint at Butchers, a popular club in the country’s capital.

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Kentucky Congressman Guthrie tests positive for COVID-19 — 8:17 p.m.

By The Associated Press

Republican U.S. Rep. Brett Guthrie tested positive for COVID-19 and has mild symptoms, he said Wednesday.

“Out of an abundance of caution, I took a COVID-19 test, and it came back positive today,” he said in a news release. “I am glad I decided to get fully vaccinated, and I am experiencing mild symptoms.”

Guthrie, who was elected from Kentucky’s 2nd District in 2008, said his offices in the district and in Washington remain open.

Australia’s deputy leader tests positive for virus while in the US — 7:26 p.m.

By The Associated Press

Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said Thursday he’d tested positive for the coronavirus while traveling in Washington D.C.

Joyce, who is fully vaccinated, said in a Facebook post that he’d been experiencing mild symptoms and decided to get tested. He said he would remain in isolation while seeking further advice.

He said the remaining members of his traveling delegation had tested negative.

It wasn’t immediately clear what variant of the virus Joyce had contracted. Before arriving in the U.S., he’d traveled to London and met with top officials there as part of a 10-day trip to discuss his government’s plans for regulating social media.

Australia has been a prominent voice in calling for international regulation of the internet.

Pfizer booster for more teens moves closer to FDA clearance — 6:33 p.m.

By Bloomberg

Food and Drug Administration authorization of Pfizer Inc. booster vaccines for more teens took a step forward when the agency said further study by an advisory committee wasn’t necessary.

Third doses for those age 16 and 17 do “not raise questions that would benefit from additional discussion by the members of the committee,” the FDA said in an email.

The development on Wednesday signals the FDA has no particular safety concerns for the age bracket.

Last month the FDA authorized booster doses for those 18 and older. Pfizer subsequently asked the U.S. to allow booster shots for younger teens, a move that would expand access to additional doses amid worry about the new omicron variant.

A spokesperson said that while the FDA “cannot predict how long its evaluation of the data and information will take, the agency will review the request as expeditiously as possible.”

Children age 5 and older in the U.S. have been able to receive the messenger RNA vaccine. Boosters have been cleared only for adults.

President Joe Biden this month called on health providers to expand the availability of coronavirus vaccines and booster shots in a bid to hold off the omicron variant and combat a winter surge of infections.

Lyft pushes back staff’s return to office until 2023 at earliest, citing Omicron as a factor — 6:27 p.m.

By Bloomberg

Lyft Inc. said employees can work remotely for the entirety of 2022, a reversal of its previous mandate and one of the longest office-return delays among major companies.

The second-largest U.S. ride-hailing operator revised an earlier requirement for workers to be back at their desks in February.

Many companies are changing their return dates yet again in response to the omicron variant of Covid-19, but few have gone as far as Lyft’s full-year reprieve. Google informed employees last week that it won’t enforce its January deadline and will reassess after that. Uber Technologies Inc., Lyft’s main rival, made a similar move.

Lyft’s offices will fully reopen in February as planned for employees who want to come in, but returning will be optional for the whole year. The new policy was not “exclusively tied” to omicron, but the new strain is “a factor contributing to some uncertainty,” a Lyft spokeswoman said.

The San Francisco-based company doesn’t plan to go fully remote indefinitely as others, including Twitter Inc., have done. Lyft will “continue to talk with team members, use their insights and prioritize flexibility as we develop long-term plans for how we work,” the spokeswoman said.

Hundreds of nursing home deaths might have been prevented with more COVID shots, study finds — 6:00 p.m.

By Kay Lazar, Globe Staff

More than 4,770 COVID-19 cases and 700 COVID-related nursing home deaths might have been prevented in the U.S. over just a two-month period this summer had more nursing home staff been vaccinated, according to a new study.

The findings, published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that in counties with a high prevalence of infections, nursing homes with the lowest rates of staff vaccination had more than two times the COVID-19 cases among residents and nearly three times the number of COVID-19 deaths compared to nursing homes with the highest staff vaccination rates.

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New COVID-19 antibody drug approved to protect most vulnerable — 5:39 p.m.

By The Associated Press

Federal health officials on Wednesday authorized a new COVID-19 antibody drug for people with serious health problems or allergies who can’t get adequate protection from vaccination.

Antibody drugs have been a standard treatment for treating COVID-19 infections for over a year. But the AstraZeneca antibody drug cleared by the Food and Drug Administration is different. It’s the first intended for long-term prevention against COVID-19 infection, rather than a short-term treatment.

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Maine activates National Guard as hospitals strain under COVID-19 surge — 4:34 p.m.

By Andrew Brinker, Globe Correspondent

Maine Governor Janet Mills announced Wednesday that the state will deploy national guard troops to help alleviate the strain of a record surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

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CDC chief: US Omicron cases appear mostly mild so far — 4:32 p.m.

By The Associated Press

More than 40 people in the U.S. have been found to be infected with the omicront variant so far, and more than three-quarters of them had been vaccinated, the chief of the CDC said Wednesday. But she said nearly all of them were only mildly ill.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the data is very limited and the agency is working on a more detailed analysis of what the new mutant form of the coronavirus might hold for the U.S.

But “the disease is mild” in almost all of the cases seen so far, she said, with reported symptoms mainly cough, congestion and fatigue. One person was hospitalized, but no deaths have been reported, CDC officials said.

The omicron variant were first identified in South Africa last month and has since been reported in 57 countries, according to the World Health Organization.

The first U.S. case was reported on Dec. 1. As of Wednesday afternoon, the CDC had recorded 43 cases in 19 states. About a third of those patients had traveled internationally.

More than three-quarters of those patients had been vaccinated, and a third had gotten boosters, Walensky said.

The CDC has yet to make any projections on how the variant could influence the course of the pandemic in the U.S.

Scientists are trying to better understand how easily it spreads and whether it causes illness that is any milder — or more severe — than what’s caused by other coronavirus types. Another key question is whether it is better at evading the vaccine or the immunity that people get from a bout with COVID-19.

Small businesses in Mass. are more worried about Omicron than in any other state — 3:09 p.m.

By Diti Kohli, Globe Staff

With the Omicron variant rearing its head nationwide, Massachusetts small business owners are more worried than their counterparts in other states about its economic impacts, according to a new survey.

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UMass Amherst and Emerson College will require students and staff to get COVID-19 booster shots for spring semester — 3:07 p.m.

By Travis Andersen, Globe Staff

Emerson College and UMass Amherst will each require students and staff to get COVID-19 booster vaccines for the upcoming spring semester, both schools confirmed Wednesday. The spring term starts after the holiday break that spills into January.

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Two travelers quarantined in a Hong Kong hotel. Researchers suspect the Omicron variant was transmitted across the hallway — 2:31 p.m.

By Amanda Kaufman, Globe Staff

Researchers suspect the Omicron variant spread across a hallway in a hotel in Hong Kong after two travelers quarantined there and both became infected with the mutation, according to an early medical journal article, which pointed to the incident as a potential indicator of how transmissible the new variant is.

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Work from home again: UK tightens rules amid Omicron spread — 2:28 p.m.

By The Associated Press

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced tighter restrictions Wednesday to stem the spread of the omicron variant, urging people in England to again work from home and mandating COVID-19 passes for entrance into nightclubs and large events.

Johnson said it was time to impose stricter measures to prevent a spike of hospitalizations and deaths as the new coronavirus variant spreads rapidly in the community.

“It has become increasingly clear that omicron is growing much faster than the previous delta variant and is spreading rapidly all around the world,” he said in a press conference. “Most worryingly, there is evidence that the doubling time of omicron could currently be between two and three days.”

Johnson said that 568 cases of the omicron variant have been confirmed across the U.K., and “the true number is certain to be much higher.”

He said beginning next Monday, people should work from home if possible. Starting on Friday, the legal requirement to wear a face mask will be widened to most indoor public places in England, including cinemas. Next week, having a COVID-19 pass showing that you have had both vaccine doses will be mandatory to enter nightclubs and places with large crowds.

Overall, the British government reported another 51,342 confirmed daily cases of COVID-19 in the U.K as of Wednesday, with 161 more people dying.

The announcement came as Johnson and his government faced increasing pressure to explain reports that Downing Street staff enjoyed a Christmas party that breached the country’s coronavirus rules last year, when people were banned from holding most social gatherings. Johnson on Wednesday ordered an inquiry and said he was “furious” about the situation.

The revelations have angered many in Britain, with critics saying they heavily undermine the authority of Johnson’s Conservative government in imposing virus restrictions.

South Africa on Wednesday records highest COVID-19 cases since Omicron find — 1:05 p.m.

By Bloomberg

South Africa recorded 19,842 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday, the highest since the omicron variant was discovered last month, according to the National Institute For Communicable Diseases.

The test positivity rate rose to 26.8%. In the past 24 hours, 374 people were admitted to hospital, taking total current hospitalizations to 4,252.

Thirty-six Covid-19 related deaths were recorded, taking the total to 90,038.

Economic hub Gauteng province is the epicenter of the resurgence with 59% of the new cases, followed by KwaZulu-Natal province and Western Cape province at 10% each.

Omicron may change pandemic course without action, WHO warns — 12:21 p.m.

By Bloomberg

The World Health Organization said the omicron variant of the coronavirus may change the course of the pandemic. It called on countries to vaccinate as fast as possible and keep measures in place to protect people from infection.

“We can prevent omicron becoming a global crisis,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a briefing on Wednesday. “This virus is changing, but our collective resolve must not.”

The organization also said while there’s early evidence that omicron is milder than the delta strain, it’s too early to be definitive.

“Certain features of omicron, including its global spread and large number of mutations, suggest it could have a major impact on the course of the pandemic,” Tedros said.

COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations spike even as US reaches vaccine milestone — 12:14 p.m.

By The Associated Press

Even as the U.S. reaches a milestone of roughly 200 million people fully vaccinated against COVID-19, cases and hospitalizations are spiking again, even in highly inoculated corners of the country like New England.

New cases in the U.S. climbed from an average of nearly 95,000 a day on Nov. 22 to almost 119,000 a day this week, and hospitalizations are up 25% from a month ago. The increases are due almost entirely to the delta variant, though the omicron mutation has been detected in about 20 states and is sure to spread even more.

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75 classmates quarantined after parents who knew child had COVID sent them to school — 10:47 a.m.

By The Washington Post

Dozens of elementary school students in California were forced to quarantine over the Thanksgiving holiday because one family sent a child to school after the child contracted covid-19, public health and school district officials said.

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‘Should we just send one to every American?’: Psaki faces backlash over response to whether rapid tests should be mailed to all — 9:57 a.m.

By Shannon Larson, Globe Staff

In a testy exchange with NPR reporter Mara Liasson over whether the Biden administration should be delivering rapid coronavirus tests to every household amid a new COVID-19 surge, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki delivered an answer that many — particularly those in the medical community — viewed as “dismissive,” “flippant,” and “cringeworthy.”

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Third vaccine dose neutralizes Omicron variant, Pfizer says — 7:29 a.m.

By Associated Press

Pfizer said Wednesday that a booster dose of its COVID-19 vaccine may protect against the new omicron variant even though the initial two doses appear significantly less effective.

Pfizer and its partner BioNTech said lab tests showed a booster dose increased by 25-fold the level of so-called neutralizing antibodies against omicron.

Pfizer announced the preliminary laboratory data in a press release and it hasn’t yet undergone scientific review. The companies already are working to create an omicron-specific vaccine in case it’s needed.

A report out of South Africa on Tuesday also offered a first glimpse at how vaccinated people might fare against the fast-spreading omicron variant of the coronavirus. Laboratory experiments found that omicron seems to dull the power of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, but also hinted that people who have received a booster shot might be better protected.

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Two years into this pandemic, the world is dangerously unprepared for the next one, report says — 6:46 a.m.

By The Washington Post

Nearly two years into a coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people, every country, including the United States, remains dangerously unprepared to respond to future epidemic and pandemic threats, according to a report released Wednesday assessing the efforts of 195 countries.

Researchers compiling the Global Health Security Index — a project of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a D.C.-based nonprofit global security group, and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health — found insufficient capacity in every country, which they said left the world vulnerable to future health emergencies, including some that might be more devastating than COVID-19.

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What courts have said about Biden’s vaccine mandates —6:40 a.m.

By The New York Times

All three of President Biden’s broad vaccine mandates affecting the private sector have been put on hold by courts.

The Biden administration issued three mandates in September — one for federal contractors, another for health care workers, and a third for companies with more than 100 employees. Some Republican governors have argued that Biden does not have the authority to impose these mandates, which are estimated to cover more than 100 million workers.

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Measure of virus spread surged in South Africa as Omicron set in — 6:36 a.m.

By Bloomberg

The reproductive number, an indicator of how fast the coronavirus spreads, almost doubled in South Africa last month as an outbreak of the Omicron variant took hold.

The measure rose to 2.55 on Nov. 27 from 1.37 on Nov. 17, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases said in a report on Wednesday. The number means each infected person on average transmitted the disease to another 2.55 people.

The data is the latest indicator of how quickly the virus has spread in South Africa since the onset of Omicron, which was first detected last month.

The gauge was at 3.06 in the commercial hub of Gauteng, the epicenter of the outbreak that’s home to Johannesburg and Pretoria. The number more than doubled to 1.63 in the Western Cape, where Cape Town is located, and rose to 2.18 from 1.23 in the northern province of Limpopo. The rate rose in eight of nine provinces, falling slightly in the sparsely populated Northern Cape.

South Africa announced the discovery of Omicron on Nov. 25 and daily infection numbers have since surged. International markets have been roiled and travel bans imposed on South Africa and its neighbors.

Bosses and workers face NYC’s new reality: Get vaccinated or else — 6:35 a.m.

By The New York Times

The owner of a flower shop in the Bronx applauded New York City’s new vaccine mandate for private employers. A worker at a tire shop in Brooklyn said she was not ready to get vaccinated. Major companies like News Corp. that require vaccination or weekly testing were considering how to implement the measure.

The day after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a vaccine mandate for on-site employees at all private businesses — the most far-reaching local measure in the country — workers across the city were figuring out what it would mean for them.

Some business leaders raised concerns about the difficulty of enforcing the measure, whether the city had the power to enact the mandate and whether it could lead to worker shortages.

De Blasio defended the mandate in a series of television interviews Tuesday, describing it as a necessary step to combat a fresh wave of coronavirus cases this winter amid growing concern over the omicron variant, without returning to harsh restrictions that were used early in the pandemic.

“What we’ve heard from business leaders is, whatever you do, don’t let us go back to a shutdown, don’t let us go backward,” de Blasio said in an interview on CNN.

The mandate takes effect Dec. 27 and applies to workers at about 184,000 businesses. De Blasio said that businesses could face penalties if they did not comply, and that the city would offer medical and religious exemptions for employees whose reasons were deemed valid.

South Africa report offers first glimpse at how vaccinated people fare against Omicron — 6:33 a.m.

By The New York Times

A report out of South Africa offered a first glimpse at how vaccinated people might fare against the fast-spreading Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Laboratory experiments found that Omicron seems to dull the power of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, but also hinted that people who have received a booster shot might be better protected.

The study, published online Tuesday, found that antibodies produced by vaccinated people were much less successful at keeping the omicron variant from infecting cells than other forms of the coronavirus.

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Weekly averages of COVID-19 detected in Boston wastewater reach highest levels yet — 6:31 a.m.

By Amanda Kaufman, Globe Staff

The seven-day averages of the amount of coronavirus found in Boston-area wastewater this week reached their highest levels since the start of the pandemic.

The amount of virus detected in tests of water into the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s Deer Island treatment plant have been sharply rising since the beginning of December in both the north and south systems, and the weekly averages reported Tuesday surpass levels reached during last winter’s COVID-19 surge.

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  Dec. 7, 2021  

Large South African hospital group sees fewer severe COVID cases — 9:23 a.m.

By Bloomberg

Mediclinic International Ltd., one of South Africa’s three biggest hospital groups, said while it is seeing an increased influx of Covid-19 patients “only a few require admission for further care.”

The group, in a statement on Tuesday, said its seeing a greater proportion of children under 12 than in previous waves and many asymptomatic patients admitted for other ailments.

Of Covid-19 patients admitted 25% are vaccinated as are 16% of those in intensive care, the company said.

The variant “appears to be highly transmissible,” Mediclinic said. Still, “so far, a lower percentage of admitted Covid-19 patients require intensive care and ventilation.”

Glaxo antibody treatment works on Omicron mutations in study — 8:54 a.m.

By Bloomberg

GlaxoSmithKline Plc said research shows its Covid-19 antibody treatment is effective against the full combination of mutations in the new omicron variant.

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Kids in 5-14 age group show highest COVID rates in Europe, WHO says — 8:25 a.m.

By The Associated Press

The World Health Organization’s office for Europe said Tuesday that children in the 5 to 14 age group now account for the highest rates of reported COVID-19 infection in the region.

WHO Europe regional director Dr. Hans Kluge also argued that vaccine mandates should be “an absolute last resort,” and said that COVID-19 deaths remain “significantly below previous peaks.” But he said that coronavirus cases and deaths have more than doubled in the last two months in the 53-country region stretching to central Asia.

He stressed the continued threat from the widespread delta variant, and noted the new omicron variant has so far accounted for 432 confirmed cases in 21 countries in the region.

“The delta variant remains dominant across Europe and Central Asia, and we know that the COVID-19 vaccines remain effective in reducing severe disease and deaths from it,” he told reporters from WHO Europe headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark. “It is yet to be seen how and whether the latest COVID-19 variant of concern, omicron, will be more transmissible, or more or less severe.”

Kluge urged countries to “protect children and the schools” amid the rapid increase in cases among the young in the region, and said the incidence of COVID-19 was two to three times higher among young children than the average population in some places. Children have tended to face less severe cases than more vulnerable populations like older people, health care workers and people with weaker immune systems.

WHO’s European region has the global epicenter of the pandemic for weeks, accounting for 70% of cases and 61 percent of deaths worldwide according to the U.N. health agency’s weekly epidemiological report issued last week.

Spain approves COVID vaccine for children in 5-11 age group — 8:15 a.m.

By The Associated Press

Spain’s health ministry gave the go-ahead Tuesday for children between ages 5 and 11 to be vaccinated against COVID-19 amid a rise in coronavirus infections in recent weeks.

Italy and Austria have also been inoculating children since the European Union’s drug regulator on Nov. 25 authorized Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine for use on that age group.

The European Medicines Agency’s decision opened the way for jabs to be administered to millions of elementary school pupils across the continent.

The Spanish health ministry tweeted news of the approval, following the decision of an expert committee. The rollout is due to begin Dec. 15, two days after the first of 3.2 million child vaccines arrive in Spain.

Austria to end lockdown on Sunday, keep limits on unvaccinated — 8:10 a.m.

By Bloomberg

Austria will end a nationwide lockdown this weekend for people who’ve been inoculated against COVID-19 or have recovered from the virus, while continuing to limit participation in public life for those who refuse to be vaccinated.

The government will meet regional leaders on Wednesday to assess the measures needed to keep the pandemic contained and turn a “tendency of falling cases into a trend,” Chancellor Karl Nehammer told reporters in Vienna.

The measures have helped halve the number of 7-day infections per 100,000 inhabitants from as high as 1,110 at the start of the lockdown, even as occupancy of intensive-care units remains near a record.

UK vaccine booster program stuck as millions wait for shots — 7:15 a.m.

By Bloomberg

The operation to roll out COVID booster shots to all adults in the UK is struggling to pick up speed even as the Omicron variant spreads rapidly across the country.

Fewer UK adults received a third shot of vaccine on Saturday than they did seven days earlier, the day when Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for an increase in the pace of the rollout. Regulators authorized booster shots for 18-39-year-olds two days later, on Nov. 29. However, those aged under 40 remain unable to book a third shot of vaccine using the government’s website.

The latest snags in vaccine delivery come after the UK beat many other countries with its inoculation drive. Despite the challenges facing the booster rollout campaign, the UK has already delivered 30 booster doses per 100 people, more than double than in the U.S. and the European Union, according to Our World in Data.

Uganda registers first 7 cases of Omicron, says official — 6:30 a.m.

By The Associated Press

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — Uganda has its first seven cases of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, a health official confirmed Tuesday.

The director of clinical services, Charles Olaro, said the variant was detected in travelers from South Africa and Nigeria who arrived in Uganda on Nov. 29.

“We have already notified them about their status and they are already in isolation,” he said.

Olaro said the first tests done on the travelers after arrival at Entebbe International Airport showed they were positive for the coronavirus and further testing confirmed the new variant.

“We used the genomic sequence tests which normally take five to eight days to give the results,” he said.

The Uganda Virus Research Institute in a statement confirmed the country’s first cases of the variant.

Armed gangs raise risks in vaccinating rural Nigerians — 3:53 a.m.

By The Associated Press

KUJE, Nigeria (AP) — Yunusa Bawa rolled his motorcycle away from the health care clinic where he works in Kuje, southwest of Nigeria’s capital of Abuja, and secured a black box of COVID-19 vaccine for the rough ride ahead.

The rocky and rugged pathway — Bawa described it as a road that “will make you tired” — was the least of his worries. Kidnapping along the route by armed gangs is rampant, he added.

But such trips are essential if Africa’s most populous country is to reach its ambitious goal of fully vaccinating 55 million of its 206 million people in the next two months.

As the emergence of the omicron variant underscores the importance of inoculating more people to prevent new mutations of the coronavirus, Nigeria also is facing a difficult path: Only 3.78 million are fully vaccinated.

Going directly to the villagers is one way to overcome any hesitancy they might have in getting the shots, said Bawa, 39.

“When you meet them in their home, there is no problem,” he added. “Everybody will take (the vaccine).”

Less than one COVID death a day in Japan as new cases plummet — 2:50 a.m.

By Bloomberg

In the world’s oldest nation, less than one person a day is dying from Covid-19.

The six confirmed deaths in Japan over the past week is the lowest it’s been in the country since July 2020, before the second wave of pandemic fatalities. Compared to other developed nations, such as Germany or the U.S., it’s an even more remarkable result -- no Group of 7 nation has had so few deaths since the pandemic started in earnest.

That slump parallels the collapse in reported cases, which are down from more than 25,000 a day in August to fewer than 200 a day every day for the past three weeks. The drop in cases and deaths is even more striking considering that Japan’s population is much larger than all the G-7 nations except the U.S., and is also older, increasing the risk of death from Covid-19.

It’s unclear exactly why the wave of cases and deaths Japan faced in late summer and early fall has receded so dramatically. A comprehensive vaccination campaign is at least partly responsible for the drop, with more than 77% of the nation’s 126 million residents fully inoculated as of Monday.

  Dec. 6, 2021  

Will Adams keep NYC’s newest vaccine mandate? Check back later. — 11:31 p.m.

New York Times

NEW YORK — In the lengthy run-up to this year’s New York City mayoral election, an obvious question overshadowed the campaign: How would the victor handle the city’s response to the coronavirus?

For the mayor-elect, Eric Adams, the answer is still not clear. He has both expressed support for vaccine mandates for city employees, and, in November, also said he would revisit them.

On Monday, Adams had another chance to clarify his position, after the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, announced his intention to mandate that all private employers require their staff be vaccinated by Dec. 27 — five days before he leaves office, and Adams takes over.

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Hong Kong loses shine amid tough coronavirus restrictions — 11:04 p.m.

The Associated Press

HONG KONG (AP) — The bustling, cosmopolitan business hub of Hong Kong may be losing its shine among foreign companies and expatriates with its stringent anti-pandemic rules requiring up to 21 days of quarantine for new arrivals.

The restrictions are discouraging both visitors and business travelers and add to other challenges the semi-autonomous Chinese territory faces as Beijing exerts ever more control over the former British colony.

For months, business circles have been urging the authorities to relax some quarantine restrictions, saying the city risks losing some of its international talent and appeal as a regional financial hub.

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New COVID pills offer hope as Omicron looms — 9:50 p.m.

New York Times

As the world worries that the omicron coronavirus variant may cause a surge of cases and weaken vaccines, drug developers have some encouraging news: Two new COVID-19 pills are coming soon, and are expected to work against all versions of the virus.

The Food and Drug Administration is expected to soon authorize a pill made by Merck and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, called molnupiravir, which reduces the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19 by 30% if taken within five days of the onset of symptoms.

Another antiviral pill, developed by Pfizer, may perform even better. An interim analysis showed that the drug was 85% effective when taken within five days of the start of symptoms. The FDA could authorize it by year’s end.

Since the start of the pandemic, scientists have hoped for convenient options like these: pills that could be prescribed by any doctor and picked up at a local drugstore.

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announces free COVID tests, masks, and vaccination clinics to confront city’s ‘urgent situation’ — 8:43 p.m.

By Felice J. Freyer and Nick Stoico, Globe Staff and Globe Correspondent

Boston health officials will distribute 20,000 free rapid antigen home tests and free masks to neighborhoods with the highest rates of COVID-19, Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration announced Monday.

The city will also expand access to vaccinations, including at new high-volume clinics and city schools.

The plan, announced at a City Hall press conference, marked the new mayor’s first initiative to combat the latest phase of the pandemic, as the Omicron variant bears down on Massachusetts. She also announced the formation of a 17-member board to advise the city on its COVID-19 response.

“Everything is on the table and the goal of this group is to move quickly,” Wu said, adding that Boston is in a very “urgent situation” as cases and hospitalizations rise.

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NY detects 4 more cases of Omicron, bringing total to 12 — 6:27 p.m.

By The Associated Press

Four more cases of the omicron variant of the coronavirus have been detected in New York, bringing the state’s number of cases up to 12, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Monday.

Two of the latest cases were found upstate, in Oneida County, and the other two were in Long Island’s Suffolk County. Of the previous 8 cases, one was in Suffolk County and seven in New York City.

Hochul said none of the four latest cases was related to a three-day anime festival in New York City in November, which a Minnesota man who later tested positive for the omicron variant attended.

The pandemic has your blood pressure rising? You’re not alone — 6:19 p.m.

By The New York Times

Last year was a tough one. Americans grappled with a global pandemic, the loss of loved ones, lockdowns that splintered social networks, stress, unemployment, and depression.

It is probably no surprise that the nation’s blood pressure shot up.

On Monday, scientists reported that blood pressure measurements of nearly a half-million adults showed a significant rise last year, compared with the previous year.

These measurements describe the pressure of blood against the walls of the arteries. Over time, increased pressure can damage the heart, the brain, blood vessels, kidneys, and eyes. Sexual function can also be affected.

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Omicron v. Delta: Battle of coronavirus mutants is critical — 6:01 p.m.

By The Associated Press

As the omicron coronavirus variant spreads in southern Africa and pops up in countries all around the world, scientists are anxiously watching a battle play out that could determine the future of the pandemic. Can the latest competitor to the world-dominating delta displace it?

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CDC issues ‘very high’ risk warning for travel to France and Portugal — 5:47 p.m.

By The Washington Post

Federal health authorities issued a warning Monday against travel to several European countries as well as Jordan and Tanzania amid growing fears of the omicron variant, telling people to make sure they are fully vaccinated if they must visit.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said to avoid travel to France, Portugal, Cyprus, Andorra and Liechtenstein, grouping all in a Level 4 category that represents a “very high” level of the coronavirus. Countries and territories in this group have an infection incidence rate of more than 500 new cases per 100,000 people over the past 28 days (or, in places with fewer than 100,000 residents, more than 500 cases cumulatively over the past 28 days).

“Because of the current situation in France, even fully vaccinated travelers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants,” one advisory reads.

Last week, the CDC urged against travel to Niger, Papua New Guinea, Poland, and Trinidad and Tobago.

Google and Uber delay office returns amid Omicron uncertainty — 5:31 p.m.

By The Washington Post

Last week, Google and Uber became some of the first major employers in the United States to announce that they would postpone their Jan. 10 return date - not to another specific day, but indefinitely. Ford Motor Co. said Monday that it was pushing its expected return from January to March.

Several other major companies said they had no updates on their plans to return to their offices early next year or did not respond to inquiries from The Washington Post.

The question of when to return to offices is a niche problem. Most Americans already have returned to their workplaces or have worked on site throughout the pandemic. About 11 percent of U.S. workers were teleworking because of the coronavirus as of November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Worldwide, many of those who have worked from home in the past year and a half are in the scientific, technical or financial services industries.

Those workers’ employers face a timing conundrum: Employees want and expect advance notice if their return-to-office plans will change, but much about omicron will remain unknown for weeks. Scientists are racing to discover whether the mutation-riddled variant will prove more transmissible, virulent or capable of evading the body’s immune defenses compared with other variants.

COVID-19 hospitalizations in Connecticut back up to 500 — 5:23 p.m.

By The Associated Press

Governor Ned Lamont’s office reported Monday that the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Connecticut rose over the weekend to 500, just five months after dropping to a low of 25.

That includes a rise of 80 coronavirus-related hospitalizations since Friday, according to the daily metrics released by the governor’s office.

It is still well below the high of 1,972 hospitalizations in April of 2020 and the 1,183 hospitalizations reported on Dec. 6, 2020.

Lamont, speaking before the latest numbers were released, credited vaccinations and boosters with keeping hospitalizations down.

Of the 500 patients currently hospitalized with COVID-19, 386 (77.2%) are not fully vaccinated, according to the governor’s office.

“Maybe with each of these variants coming along, we can’t always prevent mild illness,” he said. “But, you’ve got to know that the boosters and the vaccines are keeping you out of the hospital and are keeping you out of the morgue.”

The seven-day rolling average of new COVID-19 cases in Connecticut has risen over the past two weeks from about 738 new cases per day on November 20 to just over 971 new cases per day on Dec. 4, according to John’s Hopkins University.

Trust in science and scientists increased globally, poll finds — 4:47 p.m.

By The New York Times

As the coronavirus pandemic put a spotlight on scientific research, people around the world gained trust in both science and scientists, according to a new survey released last week.

Results from the public opinion poll, in a report published by the Wellcome Trust, a foundation focused on health research in London, showed that about 80% of people from 113 countries said they trusted science either “a lot” or “some.”

Conducted by Gallup, the poll interviewed 119,000 people from August 2020 to February 2021, while vaccine trials were underway and largely before COVID vaccines were publicly available in many countries.

Worldwide, trust levels rose most substantially among people who said they knew “some,” “not much” or “nothing at all” about science since the poll was last conducted in 2018. This suggests that people without much experience with science may have gained awareness of its importance during the pandemic, according to the study’s authors.

The percentage of people who said they had “a lot” of trust in science increased by at least 10 points in East Asia (especially China), Latin America, Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.

Within the United States, the survey found that 54% of Americans said they had “a lot” of trust in scientists, an increase of 9 percentage points from the 2018 poll. The most recent U.S. survey data was collected from August 2020 to October 2020, as confirmed coronavirus cases per 100,000 people rose 60%.

The results may surprise those who monitor the surge of misinformation about the virus, which has led many to question vaccines, to reject public health measures such as masking and distancing, or to seek unapproved treatments like antimalarial drugs or ivermectin, which is mainly used as an animal deworming drug.

A separate, more recent Gallup poll conducted in July and specific to the United States found confidence in science has increasingly diverged across partisan lines. Since the last poll was taken in 1975, Republican confidence in science fell by 27 points while Democrat confidence increased by 12 points.

Coronavirus levels in Boston-area waste water have risen dramatically in recent days — 3:57 p.m.

By Maria Elena Little Endara, Globe Correspondent

Coronavirus readings in Boston-area wastewater have seen a dramatic rise in recent days, reaching levels not seen since the height of the January surge.

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Man who contracted Omicron, attended anime convention urges vaccination — 3:47 p.m.

By The Washington Post

The Minnesota man who tested positive for the omicron variant of the coronavirus after attending an anime convention in New York has just finished his quarantine, he said in an interview.

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About 200 UMass Memorial Health workers fired for not getting vaccinated against COVID-19 — 2:49 p.m.

By Travis Andersen, Globe Staff

Some 200 employees of UMass Memorial Health, the largest hospital system in Central Massachusetts, have lost their jobs for failing to get vaccinated against COVID-19 by the system’s Dec. 1 deadline, a spokesperson said Monday.

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Nebraska football legend Johnny Rodgers in ICU with COVID — 1:59 p.m.

By The Associated Press

Johnny Rodgers, the 1972 Heisman Trophy winner and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, was in an Omaha hospital intensive care unit Monday with COVID-19.

Rodgers’ business partner, Denny Drake, said the Cornhuskers’ football great was hospitalized Thanksgiving morning with the virus at Nebraska Medical Center, the Omaha World-Herald reported. Rodgers also developed pneumonia but seemed to improve after a few days in the hospital, Drake said. However, he took a turn for the worse last week and was placed in the ICU.

Rodgers, 70, has since improved and is “feeling much better,” Drake said.

“He was pretty weak until late yesterday,” Drake told the World-Herald on Sunday. “He called me this morning, and his voice sounded good.”

Rodgers did not immediately return a text message left Monday by The Associated Press.

Rodgers, nicknamed “The Jet,” grew up in Omaha, played on Nebraska’s national championship teams in 1970-71 and won the Heisman as a senior in 1972. He is well known for his electrifying punt return for a touchdown against archrival Oklahoma in 1971. He also was a consensus All-American his last two seasons. He was an NFL first-round draft pick in 1973, but played most of his professional career in Canada.

Traveling for the holidays? Here’s a guide to restrictions and recommendations amid COVID-19 — 1:57 p.m.

By Amanda Kaufman, Globe Staff

As the second pandemic winter approaches, Americans are gearing up to spend another holiday season under the thumb of COVID-19 concerns.

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Boston announces free COVID rapid tests, larger vaccine clinics for hard-hit neighborhoods — 11:43 a.m.

By Sahar Fatima, Globe Staff

The city of Boston will be providing 20,000 free rapid antigen home tests as well as free masks to communities with the highest rates of COVID-19 and high barriers to purchasing test kits on their own, Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission, announced Monday.

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Hospitals start firing workers over vaccination refusals — 11:26 a.m.

By The Associated Press

Hospital systems in Massachusetts have started firing workers who refused to comply with coronavirus vaccine mandates.

New Bedford-based Southcoast Health fired 216 employees last week, a system spokesperson told The Herald News of Fall River.

Another 102 workers who had been placed on unpaid leave for missing a Nov. 15 vaccination deadline returned to work after showing proof of a first dose, spokesperson Katie Cox said. Those employees “will be tested regularly until they are fully vaccinated,” she said.

Another 151 Southcoast Health employees who have been granted religious or medical exemptions will also be tested regularly, she said.

Southcoast Health, with about 7,500 employees, operates Charlton Memorial Hospital in Fall River; St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford; Tobey Hospital in Wareham; and other facilities.

UMass Memorial Health fired more than 200 people who refused to get vaccinated for COVID-19, CEO and President Dr. Eric Dickson told The Telegram & Gazette.

“It was for the safety of other staff members and patients that we had to do this,” spokesperson Debora Spano said.

Worcester-based UMass Memorial, with about 15,000 employees, operates several hospitals in central Massachusetts.

Ford delays office return again as COVID spreads in home state — 11:13 a.m.

By Bloomberg

Ford Motor Co. delayed its salaried workers’ return to the office again, citing continued spread of Covid-19 as its home state of Michigan has become a national hot spot.

The return has been moved to March from January, Ford said Monday. The automaker initially planned to bring back the employees in July, which was later moved to January after the virus continued to surge.

Ford now says it plans to bring back a limited number of employees to test its “flexible hybrid” system -- in which workers only come in for collaborative work -- in February, with a full return the following month. The carmaker is one of several companies, including Apple Inc., that are delaying office returns as the virus surges nationwide.

“The state of Covid-19 virus remains fluid, and despite the success of our ongoing safety protocols and increased vaccination rates, we are shifting the start date of the hybrid work model to March,” the company said by email.

The Dearborn, Michigan-based company is requiring most of its roughly 32,000 U.S. salaried employees to be vaccinated by Dec. 8 or potentially face unpaid leave.

Michigan has the highest per capita case rate of Covid-19 cases in the U.S. Hospitals in the state have been overwhelmed, and the U.S. Defense Department is sending doctors and nurses to help.

Mass. health officials urging families to get children vaccinated with looming threat of Omicron variant — 10:58 a.m.

By Travis Andersen, Globe Staff

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health on Monday released a video message from a Boston physician urging families get children aged 5 and older vaccinated against COVID-19, two days after DPH confirmed the first known case of the Omicron variant had been detected in the state.

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EU drug agency recommends approving COVID-19 treatment — 10:53 a.m.

By The Associated Press

The European Union’s drugs agency on Monday recommended approving the use of an anti-inflammatory medicine to treat adults hospitalized with severe COVID-19.

The European Medicines Agency decision, which has to be confirmed by the E.U.’s executive commission, extends the use of the drug RoActemra, made by Swiss pharmaceuticals giant Roche, that is currently used to treat forms of arthritis.

The Amsterdam-based EMA said it can now be used on adult COVID-19 patients who are being treated with corticosteroids and require supplemental oxygen or mechanical ventilation. The drug, given through an IV, tamps down a protein called interleukin-6 that’s often found in excess in COVID-19 patients.

The agency said a study of 4,116 hospitalized adults with severe COVID-19 showed that treatment with RoActemra in addition to standard treatment reduced the risk of death when compared with standard treatment alone.

Croatia confirms first two cases of Omicron variant in country — 9:43 a.m.

By The Associated Press

Croatia on Monday confirmed the first two cases of the new omicron variant in the European Union country.

Health authorities said they are trying to establish the source of infection as the two people had not traveled abroad. They most likely got the virus at a business gathering they both attended, officials said.

The infected people had a fever and “felt as if they had been run over by a train,” but did not have other more serious symptoms, epidemiologist Bernard Kaic said at a press conference.

Kaic said authorities expect more omicron cases to emerge in the coming days and weeks.

Croatia, along with much of Central and Eastern Europe, faced a major surge in infections this fall that has started to ease in recent days. The country confirmed 728 new infections in the past 24 hours while 51 more people have died.

Croatia has vaccinated about 54% of its population of 4.2 million, a much lower figure than the EU average.

In the long war against COVID, this Waltham biotech is designing a way to fight all variants — 9:05 a.m.

By Anissa Gardizy, Globe Staff

The Omicron variant has driven home the reality that COVID-19 may be with us for a long time. But if one of New England’s leading biotech thinkers is right, there could soon be a new way to fight it.

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Vaccine mandates to be required for all NYC employers — 8:59 a.m.

By The Associated Press

All New York City employers will have to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for their workers under new rules announced Monday by Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The vaccine mandate for private businesses will take effect Dec. 22 and is aimed at preventing a spike in COVID-19 infections during the holiday season and the colder months, the Democratic mayor said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

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Omicron mutations may provide clues about origin, analysis shows — 8:11 a.m.

By Bloomberg

Omicron’s unusually large number of mutations on the gene that helps the coronavirus spread may provide clues as to how it developed, according to a computational analysis of the variant.

The co-existence of mutations on the so-called S-gene that would normally inhibit the ability of the virus to thrive suggests the changes are instead working to make the variant more effective at spreading, according to a blog post by researchers led by Associate Professor Darren Martin at the University of Cape Town’s Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine.

“While individually the mutations might decrease the fitness of any genome in which they occur, collectively they might compensate for one anothers’ deficits to yield a fitter virus genotype,” the researchers wrote in the blog.

Scientists have been rushing to answer the questions posed by the emergence of Omicron, which was first sequenced in Botswana and South Africa last month, including how it developed, how transmissible it is, and the severity of illness caused by the strain in comparison with its predecessors, such as Delta.

South Africa fuels Omicron hope by dodging hospitalization surge — 7:05 a.m.

By Bloomberg

South Africa’s surge in COVID-19 cases following the emergence of the Omicron variant hasn’t overwhelmed hospitals so far, prompting some cautious optimism that the new strain may cause mostly mild illness.

Initial data from South Africa, the epicenter of the outbreak of the Omicron variant, are “a bit encouraging regarding the severity,” Anthony Fauci, US President Biden’s chief medical adviser, said on Sunday. At the same time, he cautioned that it’s too early to be definitive.

Scientists and public-health officials are scouring available data to try to predict omicron’s impact as many questions about the new strain and its multiple mutations remain unanswered. The variant, now dominant in South Africa, has made its way from Tokyo to Oslo since its discovery was announced on Nov. 25.

Roche plans antigen test to tell viruses apart — 5:50 a.m.

By Bloomberg

Roche Holding AG plans to introduce a test next month in Europe that can differentiate between SARS-CoV-2 and flu viruses, the Swiss drugs and diagnostics maker said on Monday.

The test will deliver results within a half hour and will help doctors figure out quickly which virus is causing a patient’s symptoms, Roche said. The company aims to bring the test to the European market in January and seek U.S. emergency use authorization in early 2022.

Walgreens apologizes after failing to notify parents of canceled child vaccine appointments — 4:28 a.m.

By The Washington Post

Dania Palanker and her 7-year-old daughter, Nadia, felt excited as they bundled into the car in Washington, D.C., last week to get Nadia’s coronavirus vaccine.

The evening before, Palanker received an automated email from Walgreens confirming Nadia’s appointment at the chain’s outlet in Cheverly, Md. “We’ll see you tomorrow!” read the subject line.

Their anticipation turned to disappointment once they arrived for the 6:30 p.m. shot. The store was still open, but the pharmacists had left, the pharmacy counter was closed and no one could provide vaccines. The pharmacy shuttered a half-hour before Nadia’s confirmed appointment, part of service cutbacks by Walgreens caused by a labor shortage hitting drugstores across the country.

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Unvaccinated Italians face new restrictions as holidays near — 3:31 a.m.

By The Associated Press

Italy is making life more uncomfortable for unvaccinated people as the holidays draw near, excluding them from indoor restaurants, theaters, and museums to reduce the spread of coronavirus and encourage vaccine skeptics to get their shots.

Starting Monday through Jan. 15, Italian police can check whether diners in restaurants or bars have a “super” green health pass certifying that they are either vaccinated or have recently recovered from the virus. Smart phone applications that check people’s health pass status will be updated and those who have merely tested negative in recent days for COVID-19 will no longer be allowed into concerts, movies or performances.

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Hong Kong moves more countries into high-risk category — 2:47 a.m.

By Bloomberg

Hong Kong has moved more than 30 countries into its high-risk category in the past 10 days due to omicron, making travelers from these places spend 21 days in mandatory quarantine, including those coming from Cook Islands, a tiny tropical island that saw its first-ever Covid-19 case just two days ago.

The high-risk category includes Mexico, Chile, Luxembourg and Romania. Rival Asian financial hub Singapore was also put into the 21-day category.

High school seniors return to classrooms in Vietnam capital — 1:40 a.m.

By The Associated Press

High school seniors returned to their classrooms in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, on Monday for the first time in more than six months as the city eases coronavirus restrictions.

Only 50 percent of normal school attendance will be allowed to reduce the risk of infections, so students will spend alternate days attending classes in person and online, an announcement by the capital city authority said.

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US says Omicron cases are likely to rise — 12:04 a.m.

By New York Times

At least 17 states have detected cases, including in some people who have no known history of recent travel abroad, which experts have said suggests community spread of the variant in the United States.

Genetic sequencing is required to determine which variant an infected patient has. In recent months the United States has greatly expanded sequencing efforts, but the process takes time. The CDC, for instance, typically takes about 10 days to yield results. According to Walensky, about 14% of all positive PCR tests in the United States are being sequenced.

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Video: Omicron poses very high global risk: WHO (Reuters)

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  Dec. 5, 2021  

UK COVID-19 vaccine inventor urges ‘caution’ over Omicron — 11:00 p.m.

By Bloomberg

The UK should remain cautious until officials know the effects of the new Omicron variant because it is so easy to pass on, the scientist behind the UK’s joint Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine will warn.

“The spike protein of this variant contains mutations already known to increase the transmissibility of the virus but there are additional changes that may mean antibodies induced by the vaccines, or by infection with other variants, may be less effective at preventing infection with Omicron,” Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at Oxford University, will warn in a BBC TV lecture Monday.

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J&J booster works well for people who had Pfizer originally, study finds — 9:26 p.m.

By New York Times

People who received Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines may get as much benefit from a Johnson & Johnson booster shot as a Pfizer one. That’s the finding of a small study released Sunday.

Researchers at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston studied 65 people who had received two shots of the Pfizer vaccine. Six months after the second dose, the researchers gave 24 of the volunteers a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine and gave 41 the Johnson & Johnson shot. (The study was funded in part by Johnson & Johnson and has not yet been published in a scientific journal.)

Both vaccine brands boosted the number of COVID-fighting T-cells, which are important for long-lasting protection and for preventing infections from turning into severe disease. But the T-cell increase delivered by the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was twice as high as that of Pfizer’s.

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Omicron’s spread across hotel hall highlights transmission worry — 8:12 p.m.

By Bloomberg

The omicron variant spread among two fully vaccinated travelers across the hallway of a Hong Kong quarantine hotel, underscoring why the highly mutated coronavirus strain is unnerving health authorities.

Closed-circuit television camera footage showed neither person left their room nor had any contact, leaving airborne transmission when respective doors were opened for food collection or Covid testing the most probable mode of spread, researchers at the University of Hong Kong said in a study published Friday in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

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With Omicron in Mass., ‘people need to be very careful,’ expert says — 8:03 p.m.

By John Hilliard and Gal Tziperman Lotan, Globe Staff

Public health experts in Massachusetts Sunday cautioned that holiday plans could be upended by the presence of the Omicron variant, as researchers race to evaluate the risk — and the effectiveness of current vaccines to combat the threat.

Both the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called Omicron a “variant of concern.” On Saturday, Massachusetts reported its first case involving Omicron, and officials urged people to protect themselves by getting vaccine shots, masking up, and following pandemic guidelines.

Governor Charlie Baker said late Sunday afternoon at a public event that the state is working to expand its capacity to administer vaccines and open more clinics in local communities for people to get shots. And he emphasized the importance of vaccinations and booster shots.

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Louisiana confirms Omicron coronavirus case — 5:46 p.m.

By Bloomberg

Louisiana has confirmed an omicron case announced as “probable” two days ago, the state’s Department of Health announced on Twitter. The case involved a person in the greater New Orleans area who had traveled recently in the U.S.

Britain, Denmark report rise in known Omicron cases — 4:42 p.m.

By New York Times

Britain and Denmark each reported a rise in confirmed coronavirus cases of the new omicron variant Sunday as countries with robust testing uncover more known instances of the variant in their backyards.

There were 86 new cases of the omicron variant, Britain’s health security agency said Sunday, bringing the total number of cases in the country to 246 — nearly double the total number of cases reported Friday. In Denmark, local health authorities confirmed there were 183 known cases of the variant, more than triple the total number of suspected cases reported Friday, and called them “worrying.”

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US close to having 200 million people fully vaccinated — 3:51 p.m.

By New York Times

The United States was poised to soon surpass more than 200 million people fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 198 million people in the United States were fully vaccinated as of Saturday, accounting for almost 60% of the total population. More than 45 million had also received additional doses.

On Tuesday, the agency’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said that although health officials were encouraging those eligible to get boosters, the agency was not changing its definition of fully vaccinated to include boosters “right now.”

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Cruise ship with COVID-19 infections arrives in New Orleans — 2:58 p.m.

By The Associated Press

A Norwegian Cruise Line ship with at least 10 passengers and crew members infected with COVID-19 docked Sunday in New Orleans, where health officials said they were trying to disembark people without worsening the spread of the coronavirus illness.

Local news outlets in New Orleans confirmed the Norwegian Breakaway had arrived in the city. The ship departed New Orleans on Nov. 28. The Louisiana Department of Health said in a late Saturday news release that over the past week, the ship made stops in Belize, Honduras and Mexico.

Norwegian Cruise Line issued a statement that confirmed a “handful of COVID-19 cases among guests and crew.” The company said all of the identified cases involved people without symptoms of the illness.

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Before even receiving a name, Omicron could have spread in New York and the country — 1:56 p.m.

By New York Times

It is possible that the convention in New York contributed little to omicron’s spread. But it appears more likely that the virus is once again outpacing a public health response that is simply unable to keep up. (On Saturday, Connecticut officials said that a man in his 60s from their state fell sick with the omicron variant in late November, days after a family member had returned from attending the anime convention.)

In the nearly two years since the novel coronavirus first began circulating in this country, the United States has built enough capacity to test more people than any other country. It is now sequencing some 14% of positive PCR tests, searching for mutations and identifying variants.

But amid tens of thousands of new delta infections in the United States each day, omicron’s landfall and spread are easily hidden. Many coronavirus infections are asymptomatic or have only minor symptoms, slipping under the radar.

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Fauci says Omicron initial data ‘a bit encouraging regarding the severity’ — 1:34 p.m.

By Bloomberg

Initial data from South Africa, the epicenter of the outbreak of the omicron variant, are “a bit encouraging regarding the severity,” Anthony Fauci said on Sunday.

“Thus far, it does not look like there’s a great degree of severity to it,” Fauci, U.S. President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “But we’ve really got to be careful before we make any determinations.” He added that existing vaccines may provide “a considerable degree” of protection against the variant.

Fauci said the administration is reevaluating the travel ban on eight southern African countries as more information about omicron variant and its spread becomes available.

“That ban was done at a time when we were really in the dark -- we had no idea what was going on,” he said.

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Moderna’s Hoge sees risk of vaccines weakening against Omicron — 11:50 a.m.

Bloomberg

Moderna Inc. President Stephen Hoge said there’s a clear risk that existing COVID-19 vaccines will be less effective against the Omicron variant, though it’s too early to say by how much.

An updated formulation would probably be needed if effectiveness is shown to drop by something like half, Hoge said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.

“I think that there’s a real risk that we’re going to see a decrease in the effectiveness of the vaccines,” Hoge said. “What I don’t know is how substantial that is.”

Financial markets were spooked last week when Moderna Inc.’s top executives said the omicron variant’s many mutations suggest new vaccines will be needed. Moderna’s Chief Executive Officer Stephane Bancel said last week that he thinks “there is no world” in which existing shots will be as effective as against the delta variant.

Hoge said he “probably would have used different words, but I think the short answer is we don’t have data yet to know for sure.”

Fauci says US is reviewing travel restrictions on 8 African nations on daily basis — 10:41 a.m.

Bloomberg

The U.S. is reevaluating the travel ban on eight southern African countries as more information about the Omicron variant and its spread becomes available, White House medical adviser Anthony Fauci said Sunday.

“That ban was done at a time when we were really in the dark — we had no idea what was going on,” Fauci said in an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union.”

U.S. medical advisers are evaluating the new restrictions on “a daily basis” and Fauci said he was hopeful “we’ll be able to lift that ban in a quite reasonable period of time.”

The U.S. has barred entry from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. While the apparently highly contagious variant was first detected in South Africa, some of those countries aren’t yet reporting cases.

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How a vaccine side-effect database sowed doubts about vaccinations — 10:10 a.m.

Bloomberg

Midway into the pandemic, University of Alabama epidemiologist Bertha Hidalgo realized her Covid communication strategy needed a makeover.

She was skipping basic biology lessons in favor of simply telling people the best ways to moderate their behavior in response to the virus. Instead of helping people better understand the virus, her approach sometimes backfired, introducing more doubt instead of less.

“My method was, ‘These are the facts and this is what you need to do,’” she said. What she quickly learned was that people didn’t have enough base knowledge to accept what she was presenting as fact.

“A lot of people have forgotten what they learned in science in high school or college,” she said.

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Ex-Dutch Queen tests positive — 7:50 a.m.

By Bloomberg

Princess Beatrix, the former Dutch queen, has tested positive for Covid-19 with “mild cold symptoms,” the Royal House of the Netherlands said in a statement. Beatrix, 83, who abdicated in 2013, is recovering in isolation at home.

France is seeking to avoid new restrictions as Omicron gains — 6:43 a.m.

By Bloomberg

France will try to avoid any new health rules including a lockdown in the face of rising coronavirus cases and the spread of the omicron variant, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said.

“We should do the maximum to avoid any new health restrictions,” he said Sunday in an interview with Europe 1, Les Echos and CNews. Unlike some European countries, the government isn’t in favor of making vaccines mandatory, he said.

Le Maire was speaking ahead of a defense council meeting Monday to consider how to counter the latest wave of Covid-19, the advance of the omicron variant in the country and the rising numbers of people in intensive care. The finance minister rejected the idea of another lockdown, saying this would hurt morale and the upcoming Christmas holidays.

Restaurants and the hospitality industry are among sectors that are getting hit by the latest wave because events are being canceled, Le Maire said, adding that the government will back them financially.

“The variant, as I am speaking, won’t have an impact on French growth,” he said.

Russia’s latest tally — 5:40 a.m.

By Bloomberg

Russia reports 32,602 new Covid-19 Cases and 1,206 deaths in the past 24 hours. The numbers are consistent with trend on slow reduction of new cases and mortality records over the past several weeks.

UK reluctant to require jabs — 4:55 a.m.

By Bloomberg

Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab, on Sky News, pushes back against mandatory vaccines but calls those who don’t get jabbed “irresponsible.”

Singapore vaccines for kids — 3:55 a.m.

By Bloomberg

Covid vaccines for children aged 5 to 11 will be available soon in Singapore, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said in a Facebook post.

Portugal reports surge in cases — 2:34 a.m.

By Bloomberg

Portugal reported 5,649 new coronavirus infections on Saturday, the most daily cases since February though just one third of the more than 16,000 cases at a January peak. Portugal is administering third vaccine doses to people 65 and older and some groups such as health-care workers.

Omicron Spreads in US — 1:57 a.m.

By Bloomberg

The omicron variant continues to spread in the U.S., with three more cases reported in New York City and one each in Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Connecticut on Saturday.

The new cases in New York, which bring the state’s total to eight, don’t appear to be connected to a large anime conference in Manhattan, where a Minnesota resident appears to have been infected, Governor Kathy Hochul said in a press release on Saturday.

Romania and Chile report Omicron infections — 12:16 a.m.

By Bloomberg

The Romanian health ministry said two recent travelers to South Africa tested positive for the variant. Neither person is symptomatic.

Chile’s first case was a foreign resident who had traveled recently from Ghana, the Valparaiso regional secretariat of the health ministry said in a statement on Twitter. The patient had received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

Health authorities in Chile will test other passengers seated near the first patient on his flight. A close contact of the patient has been quarantined with family.

  Dec. 4, 2021  

Omicron community transmission in Australia — 11:58 p.m.

By Bloomberg

Five people in Sydney have contracted the omicron variant locally, New South Wales health authorities said.

The cases are linked to two schools and a climbing gym in Sydney’s western suburbs, which may also be the source of a confirmed omicron infection in the Australian Capital Territory, NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said Sunday. Urgent genome testing is under way for a number of other cases linked to the venues and should be available in coming days, she said in a video update.

New South Wales state has confirmed 15 omicron infections and more are likely, Chant said. The outbreak was seeded from infected travelers on a flight from Doha who had been in southern Africa.

COVID outbreak reported on cruise ship — 10:27 p.m.

By Bloomberg

Ten people tested positive for Covid-19 on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship due to disembark in New Orleans this weekend, the Louisiana Department of Health said on Twitter.

The Norwegian Breakaway had departed from New Orleans on Nov. 28 and stopped in Belize, Honduras and Mexico. It has more than 3,200 people on board.

Connecticut reports first Omicron variant case; may be tied to NYC — 9:47 p.m.

By The Associated Press

Connecticut has reported its first confirmed case of the omicron variant of the coronavirus that may be linked to an anime convention in New York City last month.

Gov. Ned Lamont announced Saturday night that the case involved a man in his 60s from the Hartford area who started showing mild symptoms Nov. 27.

A family member of the man was in New York City between Nov. 17 and Nov. 22 to attend the Anime NYC 2021 convention. The family member developed symptoms on Nov. 21 that have since resolved.

Both individuals were vaccinated, according to Lamont’s office.

Read more

Omicron plunges the world into collective uncertainty — 9:24 p.m.

By New York Times

The global pandemic response has transformed with dizzying speed since scientists in Botswana and South Africa, alarmed by dozens of mutations never seen before, started studying the omicron variant.

In just 36 hours, researchers analyzed samples from 100 infected patients, collated the data and, as Americans were enjoying Thanksgiving, alerted the world, setting off new rounds of travel restrictions and adding uncertainty about the trajectory of a pandemic that has upended the world for almost two years.

Omicron has reached more than 40 countries, although most of the cases so far have been found in arriving travelers. According to scientists in South Africa, omicron appears to spread faster than any other variant, thanks to a combination of contagiousness and an ability to dodge the body’s immune defenses. But the contribution of each factor is not yet certain.

Read more

Omicron is here. Should you cancel your trip? — 7:03 p.m.

By New York Times

To cancel or not to cancel. That is the question that travelers are grappling with as the omicron variant scuttles around the world, reminding people that the pandemic roller-coaster ride is far from over. What’s different this time around is that the holiday travel season is right around the corner, and tourism, in general, has finally started to rebound.

Whether the variant, which has been identified in at least 20 countries, is more severe or more transmissible than other forms of the coronavirus will likely remain unknown for at least two weeks. The United States is among the countries that believe that it is a serious enough threat to merit new rules.

Read more

Boston scientists race to find Omicron before it spreads too far — 6:44 p.m.

By Kay Lazar, Globe Staff

In a warren of labs and offices that stretch across three buildings here, scientists and machines work around the clock to prepare and analyze samples swabbed from the noses of people with COVID-19.

They have tracked the pandemic’s surges and patterns, fueled by every variant along the way. And now they are hot on Omicron’s tail.

The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard has become the region’s powerhouse for monitoring shifts in the genetic makeup of the coronavirus. While the first Omnicron case reported in Massachusetts on Saturday was sequenced by a different lab, many of the subsequent cases, when they arrive, will travel through this high-tech labyrinth.

Read more

‘Will you answer the call?’ Pop-up vaccine clinic at Museum of Science draws crowds — 5:44 p.m.

By Charlie McKenna, Globe Correspondent

Lollipops and stickers were in abundance Saturday at the Museum of Science, which held its third vaccination clinic for children and adults.

The clinic was the third held by the museum in the past four weeks, according to Carrie Nash, the museum’s director of public relations. And the museum will hold another one on Sunday.

Those who get vaccinated at the clinic will receive two free tickets to the museum, which recently debuted an exhibit chronicling the vaccine’s development. The clinic, dubbed “will you answer the call?” encourages visitors to come dressed as superheroes.

Read more

Omicron variant detected in Massachusetts, officials say — 4:17 p.m.

By Lauren Booker, Globe Staff

The first coronavirus case of the Omicron variant was detected in Massachusetts, according to a Saturday statement from the state’s department of public health.

“The individual is a female in her 20s and a resident of Middlesex County who traveled out of state. She is fully vaccinated, has experienced mild disease, and did not require hospitalization. The variant was identified through sequencing performed at New England Biolabs,” officials said in a press release.

Read more

UK tightens travel testing rules amid Omicron concerns — 3:28 p.m.

Britain’s government tightened travel restrictions Saturday amid concerns about the spread of the omicron coronavirus variant, saying all travelers arriving in England will need to take a COVID-19 test before they board their flight.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the new rules will apply from 4 a.m. London time Tuesday.

“In light of the most recent data, we are taking further action to slow the incursion of the omicron variant,” he said in a tweet.

Read more

Omicron spreads to at least 11 US states — 2:08 p.m.

By Bloomberg

The omicron variant continues to spread in the U.S., with three more cases reported in New York City on Saturday. The new cases, which bring the state’s total to eight, don’t appear to be connected to a large anime conference in Manhattan, where a Minnesota resident appears to have been infected, Governor Kathy Hochul said in a press release on Saturday.

At least 11 U.S. states have reported infections from the variant. Georgia said it’s tracing contacts of a resident who had traveled to South Africa, then spent two days in Georgia before going to New Jersey, where she was diagnosed.

The woman is the only U.S. case who is reported to have been hospitalized. She sought care at a New Jersey emergency department after experiencing “moderate” symptoms, Governor Phil Murphy said in press release on Friday. The other states include California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Pennsylvania and Utah.

More Omicron detected as hospitals strain under virus surge — 1:37 p.m.

By Associated Press

New York announced three more cases of the omicron variant of the coronavirus Saturday, bringing the number of state cases linked to the new variant to eight.

“The omicron variant is here, and as anticipated we are seeing the beginning of community spread,” state Health Commissioner Mary Bassett said in a news release.

Seven of the cases have been found in New York City and one in Suffolk County.

The arrival of omicron comes as hospitals statewide continue to strain under a surge in coronavirus cases, most traced to the delta variant, along with staffing shortages.

Read more

US drugstores are squeezed by vaccine demand and staff shortages — 12:31 p.m.

Associated Press

A rush of vaccine-seeking customers and staff shortages are squeezing drugstores around the U.S., leading to frazzled workers and temporary pharmacy closures.

Drugstores are normally busy this time of year with flu shots and other vaccines, but now pharmacists are doling out a growing number of COVID-19 shots and giving coronavirus tests.

The push for shots is expected to grow more intense as President Joe Biden urges vaccinated Americans to get booster shots to combat the emerging omicron variant. The White House said Thursday that more than two in three COVID-19 vaccinations are happening at local pharmacies.

And pharmacists worry another job might soon be added to their to-do list: If regulators approve antiviral pills from drugmakers Merck and Pfizer to treat COVID-19, pharmacists may be able to diagnose infections and then prescribe pills to customers.

Omicron cases related to Christmas party in Oslo, Norway, may grow to 100 — 11:20 a.m.

Bloomberg

Cases of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 in the Norwegian capital linked to a corporate Christmas party may rise to as many as 100, public broadcaster NRK reported.

All those who attended the event held by renewable power producer Scatec ASA on Nov. 26 are being treated as if they have the virus, the broadcaster quoted Line Vold, a department director at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, as saying.

As of Friday, the institute had confirmed 19 cases of Omicron in Norway, of which 13 were linked to the Oslo party. While the number of infections has risen sharply, hospitalizations haven’t increased, NRK said.

Scatec, which operates in more than 15 countries, including South Africa, had 120 employees at the event, a spokesman for the company said earlier this week. All the participants were recommended to test before attending and had a high vaccination coverage.

Norway on Thursday introduced measures to slow the spread of the variant, including working from home and a face mask mandate in shops and public transport.

Omicron’s speed of change worries director of Harvard lab in Botswana — 10:49 a.m.

Bloomberg

The speed at which the omicron variant appears to have accumulated its unusual pattern of mutations is a concern, according to Sikhulile Moyo, the scientist who first detected the new strain that has quickly spread across the world.

The velocity of the mutations also raises questions about how the variant evolved and adds to the puzzle of how transmissible the variant may be.

Moyo, director for the Botswana Harvard HIV Reference Laboratory and a research fellow at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a briefing on Friday that viruses don’t accumulate mutations in a single step. Given the global lack of adequate sequencing of the coronavirus, it’s very hard to get a good grasp of how early the omicron variant developed.

Read more

Omicron may evade some protections from vaccines, scientists say — 9:42 a.m.

Bloomberg

As fears of another global surge of Covid-19 cases send jitters through global markets, spur a new round of travel bans and cause Americans to rethink their holiday plans, scientists studying the omicron variant are getting the first hints of what’s in store for the months to come.

The new variant’s mutations suggest that it is likely to evade the protections of vaccines to at least some extent, but that it is unlikely to cause more severe illness than previous versions of the coronavirus.

These early hypothesis appear in line with real-world observations from places like South Africa, where infections have included the vaccinated and previously ill but appear so far largely mild. That data, however, is thus far extremely limited, so much current evidence has come from computer modeling and comparing omicron’s physical structure to past variants.

Read more

Omicron threatens to prolong pain in global vaccination bid — 8:24 a.m.

By Bloomberg

The Omicron variant threatens to widen an already yawning gap in access to COVID shots as scientists prepare for the possibility retooled vaccines will be needed and affluent countries race ahead once again.

Omicron is emerging just as vaccine supplies destined for lower-income nations have begun to pick up. Wealthy governments early in the pandemic locked up the biggest share of initial doses, leaving vast parts of the planet behind.

Read more

Omicron possibly more infectious because it shares genetic code with common cold coronavirus, study says — 6:08 a.m.

By The Washington Post

The Omicron variant is likely to have picked up genetic material from another virus that causes the common cold in humans, according to a new preliminary study, prompting one of its authors to suggest Omicron could have greater transmissibility but lower virulence than other variants of the novel coronavirus.

Researchers from Nference, a Cambridge, Mass.-based firm that analyzes biomedical information, sequenced Omicron and found a snippet of genetic code that is also present in a virus that can bring about a cold. They say this particular mutation could have occurred in a host simultaneously infected by SARS-CoV-2, also known as the novel coronavirus, and the HCoV-229E coronavirus, which can cause the common cold. The shared genetic code with HCoV-229E has not been detected in other novel coronavirus variants, the scientists said.

Read more

Italian dentist presents fake arm for vaccine to get pass — 6:02 a.m.

By The Associated Press

A dentist in Italy faces possible criminal charges after trying to receive a coronavirus vaccine in a fake arm made of silicone.

A nurse in the northern city of Biella, Filippa Bua, said she could tell right away that something was off when a man presented the phony limb for a shot on Thursday.

“When I uncovered the arm, I felt skin that was cold and gummy, and the color was too light,” Bua told Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

She said she initially thought the 57-year-old man was an amputee and had mistakenly offered the wrong arm. She lifted his shirt and saw a silicone arm.

“I understood immediately that the man was trying to avoid the vaccination by using a silicone prosthetic, into which he hoped that I would inject the drug, unaware,” Bua said.

The nurse said the man acknowledged he did not want a vaccine but to obtain a “super” health pass, which from Monday will be required to enter restaurants, cinemas, theaters and other venues in Italy.

He had already been suspended from work because of his refusal to get vaccinated, which Italy requires for medical personnel.

Merkel makes final appeal to Germans to get vaccinated — 6:00 a.m.

By The Associated Press

Outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday made what is likely her final appeal before leaving office next week for Germans to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Merkel gave what is expected to be her last weekly video message two days after federal and state leaders decided on a series of measures meant to break a wave of coronavirus infections.

The measures include excluding unvaccinated people across the country from nonessential stores, restaurants and sports and cultural venues. In a longer-term move, parliament will consider a general vaccine mandate.

At least 68.9% of Germans are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, short of the government’s aim of a minimum 75% vaccination rate. The number of unvaccinated residents has been blamed as a key factor in a surge of new virus cases in recent weeks.

Lockdowns and fines: Europe cracks down on the unvaccinated — 4:39 a.m.

By Bloomberg

Even before the shock emergence of the Omicron variant, Europe’s coronavirus battle was on shaky ground.

Cases surging at a record pace, hospitalizations and deaths on the rise — it’s setting up to be a nightmare winter for the continent yet again. The Omicron mutation has added an extra layer of uncertainty, but the continent’s immediate problem is grappling with the wave of infections that’s already put countries back into lockdown.

Germany’s government on Thursday became the latest to ramp up its response, putting stringent restrictions on the unvaccinated and may even make shots compulsory. Austria has already proposed mandatory vaccinations, while other countries plan to fine those who refuse.

The drastic steps are a response to a drastic situation. In Austria, seven-day cases topped 1,100 per 100,000 people at one point. That’s eight times the average over the preceding three months. Since the lockdown, the number has dropped, though hospital admissions, which lag, are still near a peak. Figures have been less dramatic elsewhere, though the trend has been up in many countries, including Germany, Italy, Netherlands and Greece.

The new targeted measures reflect a view that while there are multiple factors behind the latest wave of COVID infections — from cold weather to people letting their guard down — one major element is vaccines. European Union countries may have managed to put about 640 million shots into arms, but even with that huge effort, about 150 million people still aren’t fully vaccinated.

A man bragged he was ‘gonna be rich’ off fake coronavirus vaccine cards, prosecutors say. Then he got charged — 4:37 a.m.

By The Washington Post

A 23-year-old Maryland man has been charged with purchasing and distributing fake coronavirus vaccine cards to enrich himself, according to a criminal complaint unsealed in federal court Friday.

The man, Amar Salim Shabazz, was allegedly not shy about his scheme, either.

“I SELL PROOF OF VACCINATION CARDS,” he commented under an Instagram post about bars and restaurants requiring guests to show proof of vaccination cards, the criminal complaint said.

In his private messages on the app, prosecutors alleged, he told another individual, “I’m gonna be rich.”

Instead of wealth, Shabazz is now facing up to 20 years behind bars on charges of mail fraud and obstruction of justice. Prosecutors accused him of purchasing over 600 fake coronavirus vaccine cards, advertising them on several social media platforms and distributing them through the US mail. The criminal complaint includes examples of what the government says is Shabazz selling the cards at various price tags, from $60 to $70 to “$75 a pop.”

Shabazz was previously convicted on charges of possession of child porn. He was released from prison in April.

“As alleged, while Marylanders were struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Shabazz took advantage of the crisis and sold fake vaccination cards, threatening the health and safety our communities,” said United States Attorney for the District of Maryland Erek Barron in a statement.

Court records did not list an attorney for Shabazz, and family members could not be immediately reached.

Shabazz’s alleged scheme is part of a growing underground market of counterfeit vaccination cards, which are designed to undermine restrictions meant to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Since the beginning of August, according to the criminal complaint, US Customs and Border Protection Officers have seized thousands of fake cards at shipping facilities across the country. Bar owners, homeopathic doctors, pharmacists and others have been arrested this year for selling fraudulent cards. The Attorney General even designed a task force to help thwart such schemes.

  Dec. 3, 2021  

Upstate New York hospitals are overwhelmed as COVID-19 cases surge — 11:28 p.m.

By The New York Times

A surge in COVID-19 cases and a shortage of health care workers is filling hospitals and nursing homes past their capacity in upstate New York, creating a growing crisis in the health care system even before the Omicron variant is known to have spread through the area, according to hospital executives from Buffalo to Albany.

COVID-19 hospitalizations in the region have more than tripled since August when the Delta wave began to sweep through the state, Gov. Kathy Hochul said this week. At the same time, tens of thousands of health care workers have left their health care jobs, for reasons ranging from pandemic burnout to a refusal to get vaccinated despite the state’s strict mandate for health care workers, and some systems have posted hundreds of available job openings.

The result has been a decrease in upstate hospital capacity of about 10%. And a perfect storm of high patient volumes, reduced staff and an inability to discharge patients to nursing homes — which are themselves full — has begun to overwhelm some facilities, particularly in western New York, the Finger Lakes region and a swath of the state north of Albany, hospital executives said.

With Omicron now detected in New York City and on Long Island and expected to spread, and few hospital beds upstate available for patients if COVID-19 hospitalizations spike even higher, Hochul has declared a state of emergency.

New coronavirus testing rules for international travel begin Monday — 11:26 p.m.

By The Washington Post

New US coronavirus testing rules aimed at slowing the spread of the omicron variant will begin Monday, when all international travelers must show proof of a negative test taken within a day of their flight to the United States.

The new requirement announced this week is part of a strategy that includes the extension of a mandate that people on commercial aircraft and in other transportation settings wear masks, as well as the expansion of a program offering voluntary testing for new arrivals at key US airports.

Read more

Australian state doubles quarantine on Omicron — 10:37 p.m.

By Bloomberg

International travelers into Australia’s South Australia state will have to quarantine for 14 days on arrival, up from the current 7 days, due to concerns over the omicron variant, Premier Steven Marshall told reporters Saturday. Travelers arriving from Australia’s south-eastern states will need to test on arrival and isolate until a negative result is received, he said.

South Australian authorities are “extraordinarily concerned” about the omicron outbreak in Sydney and a case in the Australian Capital Territory, but will keep its border open at this stage, Marshall said. “We don’t know enough about the omicron variant at this stage,” he said after a meeting with officials to discuss closing the border.

Fauci says more Omicron cases certain in US — 10:03 p.m.

By Bloomberg

Rising U.S. omicron cases are guaranteed in the coming days as the highly mutated variant has begun spreading in the community, according to Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s top medical adviser.

“We absolutely have community spread” of the strain in the U.S., Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during an appearance on Bloomberg Television Friday. “There is no way you are not going to see more and more cases.”

The looming question, he said, is how omicron will fare when it has to compete in places like the U.S. where deltais prevalent. “Will it take off and become the dominant variant, or will it get a bit smothered by delta?” Fauci said.

Friends of Minnesota man with Omicron are testing positive for coronavirus, health official says — 9:08 p.m.

By The Washington Post

The Minnesota man who contracted the omicron variant of the coronavirus met up with about 35 friends at a New York City anime convention and about half have now tested positive for the coronavirus, a state health official said Friday.

Members of the group traveled to New York from a variety of states for the weekend convention that began Nov. 19 and tested positive after their return, said Kris Ehresmann, director of the Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention, and Control Division at the Minnesota Department of Health. It is not known whether they are infected with omicron or another variant.

“We don’t know if we’ll see a lot of omicron, or we’ll see a lot of delta,” Ehresmann said in an interview. “But we’re likely to see a lot of covid” out of the convention, which drew 53,000 people and tightly packed crowds from Nov. 19 to 21.

Read more

Omicron detected in at least 10 US states, including New Jersey — 8:30 p.m.

By Bloomberg

Omicron spread to at least 10 U.S. states after New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Maryland and Nebraska reported infections on Friday.

New Jersey identified an infection in a traveler to the state, an adult female from Georgia who is fully vaccinated and had recently traveled to South Africa, according to a statement from Governor Phil Murphy.

Pennsylvania reported one case, a man in his 30s from Philadelphia, city health officials announced. Missouri reported one infection, of a St. Louis resident who had recently traveled domestically.

Maryland reported three cases, all from the Baltimore area, according to a statement from Governor Larry Hogan. Two were in the same household, including a vaccinated person who had traveled to South Africa and an unvaccinated close contact. A third case involved a vaccinated person with no recent travel.

The first case in Nebraska came from an individual who is suspected to have been exposed on a flight from Nigeria on Nov. 23, health officials said. Five more cases were likely exposed through household contact.

The new variant has also been found in New York, California, Colorado, Hawaii and Minnesota, which said that a resident who had traveled to an anime convention at Manhattan’s Javits Center tested positive.

Contact tracing revs up in some states as Omicron reaches US — 6:48 p.m.

By The Associated Press

The arrival of the omicron variant of the coronavirus in the U.S. has health officials in some communities reviving contact tracing operations in an attempt to slow and better understand its spread as scientists study how contagious it is and whether it can thwart vaccines.

In New York City, officials quickly reached out to a man who tested positive for the variant and had attended an anime conference at a Manhattan convention center last month along with more than 50,000 people. Five other attendees have also been infected with the coronavirus, though officials don’t yet know whether it was with the omicron variant.

Read more

Omicron detected in at least nine US states, including Pennsylvania — 5:32 p.m.

By Bloomberg

Omicron spread to at least nine U.S. states after Pennsylvania, Missouri, Maryland and Nebraska reported infections on Friday.

Pennsylvania reported one case, a man in his 30s from Philadelphia, city health officials announced. Missouri reported one infection, of a St. Louis resident who had recently traveled domestically.

Maryland reported three cases, all from the Baltimore area, according to a statement from Governor Larry Hogan. Two were in the same household, including a vaccinated person who had traveled to South Africa and an unvaccinated close contact. A third case involved a vaccinated person with no recent travel.

The first case in Nebraska came from an individual who is suspected to have been exposed on a flight from Nigeria on Nov. 23, health officials said. Five more cases were likely exposed through household contact.

The new variant has also been found in New York, California, Colorado, Hawaii and Minnesota, which said that a resident who had traveled to an anime convention at Manhattan’s Javits Center tested positive.

Coronavirus cases are rising in Mass. But why? And how high will they go? — 5:02 p.m.

By Martin Finucane, Globe Staff

The number of coronavirus cases detected in Massachusetts is sharply increasing. Why now? And how high will they go?

Experts say they expected increases as the weather got colder and people began gathering inside, where the virus can circulate more easily.

“In winter, we get indoors, all of us. We feel safer indoors so we let down our guard and take down our masks,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor at the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

But there are other reasons for the increases as well. Those include Massachusetts having a lower number of previously infected people who have some degree of protection from natural immunity, and the waning protection offered by vaccines, Mokdad said. Massachusetts may have done a good job getting residents vaccinated, he said, but now they need to get their boosters.

Read more

Maryland reports first Omicron cases — 3:47 p.m.

By The Washington Post

Three cases of the omicron variant of the coronavirus have been found in Maryland, the first cases of the variant in the Washington region, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) announced on Friday.

Hogan said the cases were detected in residents who live in the Baltimore metro area.

Two of the cases are from one household, including one person who was vaccinated and recently traveled to South Africa. The second person was unvaccinated and had close contact with the traveler. The third case is unrelated to the other two and there is no known recent travel history.

None of the residents is hospitalized.

National Guard chief gets COVID-19 after overseas trip — 3:20 p.m.

By The Associated Press

The chief of the National Guard has tested positive for COVID-19 after returning from an overseas trip to visit guard troops in Europe for Thanksgiving.

Gen. Dan Hokanson has been working remotely and isolating himself from contact with others all week, Guard spokesman Wayne Hall said Friday.

Other U.S. officials said Hokanson is fully vaccinated and tested negative while he was abroad, but tested positive when he returned to the U.S. He left for Kosovo on Nov. 21, after making a brief refueling stop in Ireland, then traveled to Poland and Spain. He returned to Washington last Friday. Officials said he started having symptoms of a bad cold after he got the positive test result and that he was sick for about two days.

About 15 staffers traveled with him, and none have so far tested positive, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss personal health issues.

Officials said Hokanson has been working from home, and led meetings with adjutants general around the country on Thursday.

Poland has a vaccination rate of just 54%, and reported more than 29,000 new infections earlier this week, the highest infection rate since a virus wave in the spring made central Europe a global hot spot for COVID.

Omicron spreading more than twice as quickly as Delta variant in South Africa, scientists report — 3:06 p.m.

By The New York Times

Underscoring growing concerns about omicron, scientists in South Africa said Friday that the newest coronavirus variant appears to spread more than twice as quickly as delta, until now the most contagious version of the virus.

Read more

Belgian zoo says its 2 very runny-nosed hippos have COVID-19 — 2:03 p.m.

By The Associated Press

A Belgian zoo said Friday that a pair of hippopotamuses in its care are in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19, possibly the first time ever such animals have caught the disease.

Belgium’s national veterinary lab has confirmed that Antwerp Zoo’s two hippos — Imani, aged 14, and 41-year-old Hermien — contracted COVID-19. It’s unclear how they caught it. Both the giant semiaquatic herbivores are well, apart from exceptionally runny noses. Keepers have tightened virus restrictions around the zoo.

“To my knowledge, it’s the first recorded contamination among this species. Throughout the world this virus has mostly been seen in great apes and felines,” Antwerp Zoo vet Francis Vercammen said.

How the hippos got the disease remains a mystery. All the zoo’s animals were tested for COVID-19 last year and no case was found. Hippos noses normally tend to be wet, but Vercammen said he decided to test the thick liquid coming out as a precaution, and was surprised by the result.

The hippos’ enclosure has been closed to visitors and will only be reopened once the pair test negative. Their handlers have all tested negative for the virus, and must wear masks and safety glasses, and disinfect their footwear before approaching the two animals.

Here’s a snapshot of what’s going on in South Africa as the country deals with Omicron — 12:40 p.m.

By Maria Elena Little Endara, Globe Correspondent

As Omicron spreads across South Africa, scientists and health officials are looking at the country’s rapidly evolving COVID situation to try and better understand the new variant as it spreads across the globe. Below is a snapshot of South Africa’s COVID situation as Omicron takes hold.

Read more

Where you can get a COVID-19 vaccine booster [updated] — 12:11 p.m.

By Diti Kohli

With COVID-19 cases on the rise and concerns about the new Omicron variant growing, more Massachusetts residents are seeking COVID-19 vaccine booster shots, pushing the state to find ways to keep pace with the demand. Here’s where you can get one.

Read more

Study suggests past COVID infection may not fend off Omicron — 10:27 a.m.

By The Associated Press

South African scientists are warning that reinfections among people who’ve already battled COVID-19 appear to be more likely with the new omicron variant than with earlier coronavirus mutants.

Read more

South Africa says 68 percent of fourth wave COVID admissions under 40 — 9:58 a.m.

By Bloomberg

South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases said that 68% of Covid-19 hospital admissions in the Tshwane municipal area during the early part of the fourth wave were under 40 years old.

That compares with 66.1% of admissions being over 50 in the early part of the third wave, it said in a statement on Friday. In the early part of the fourth wave 32.9% of admissions were severe, compared with 66.1% in the same period of the third wave.

The NICD said 11% of hospital admissions were under 2 years old.

South Africa’s mass vaccination drive only began at about the beginning of the third wave’s onset. More older South Africans are vaccinated than younger ones. On Nov. 25 South Africa said a new variant, now named omicron, had been identified.

Colleges prepare for unknown with Omicron variant — 9:44 a.m.

By The Washington Post

College officials were already bracing for a potential rise in coronavirus cases when students returned to campus after Thanksgiving break. Then the world learned of the Omicron variant, with its troubling mutations and a host of unknowns.

Read more

Newly installed mayor in New York in quarantine for COVID-19 — 8:45 a.m.

By The Associated Press

The newly installed mayor of Rochester, New York, who is serving for a month following former mayor Lovely Warren’s resignation, is in quarantine after testing positive for the coronavirus last month.

Mayor James Smith, the former deputy mayor, took the oath of office remotely Thursday while in isolation in his apartment. Smith has been in quarantine and working from home since testing positive on Thanksgiving, according to published reports.

Smith told the Democrat and Chronicle he is vaccinated and recently received a booster shot.

“My doctor believes very strongly that my outcome is largely due in fact to having been vaccinated, and I am grateful for that,” Smith told the newspaper. “It’s important that everyone realize this is a real thing, and it’s serious.”

Warren, a Democrat, resigned Wednesday as part of a plea deal to resolve campaign finance fraud and other criminal charges. Mayor-elect Malik Evans will be sworn in Jan. 1.

Warren said in a videotaped address she would “move on to this new chapter with no regrets, no unkept promises.”

Smith said he will remain in quarantine until Monday. He told the newspaper he did not know how he was exposed to the coronavirus. Smith said he got tested after experiencing allergy-type symptoms. He has since lost his senses of taste and smell, he said.

Omicron triggers biggest outflows from European stocks in more than a year — 8:09 a.m.

By Bloomberg

During a period of volatility triggered by the emergence of the Omicron variant, investors dumped European stocks to the benefit of US peers, maintaining one of the main themes of this year’s market rally.

The region’s equity funds experienced $2.8 billion outflows in the week through Dec. 1, the most since October 2020, Bank of America Corp. strategists said, citing EPFR Global data. By contrast, their US counterparts had the largest inflows in four weeks at $10.2 billion.

Slovakia in lockdown records new daily record in infections — 6:58 a.m

By The Associated Press

Coronavirus cases in Slovakia hit a daily record despite the country entering a national lockdown last week, the Health Ministry reported Friday.

The ministry said Slovakia confirmed 15,278 new cases on Thursday, almost 5,000 more than the previous record set on Nov. 23. The government ordered a two-week lockdown that started Nov. 25.

However, the ministry attributed the size of the most recent daily increase to some test results not getting from labs to the information system on Tuesday; those results were added to Thursday’s tally, it said.

Other data confirmed that infections are on the rise in Slovakia. The country registered 61,515 new cases in the last seven days, compared to 57,992 the previous week.

US white supremacists blamed for targeting Aboriginal Australians with COVID vaccine misinformation — 6:13 a.m.

By The Washington Post

The leader of Western Australia has blamed white supremacists in the United States for spreading online misinformation about coronavirus vaccines among Aboriginal people in his state.

Premier Mark McGowan, whose state is home to the city of Perth, told reporters Thursday that the groups did not have the best interests of Australia’s First Nations people at heart and “wouldn’t be unhappy if bad outcomes occurred” to them. He urged Indigenous people to listen to medical experts about vaccines instead.

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Vaccine holdouts in Navy, Marines hit 19,000 as deadline passes to comply with mandate — 6:00 a.m.

By The Washington Post

As many as 19,000 active-duty Marines and Navy sailors chose not to get vaccinated against the coronavirus by their shared Nov. 28 deadline, a dilemma for military leaders who have threatened to expel personnel refusing to comply with the Biden administration’s mandate.

In both services, the number of holdouts is around 9,500, according to official counts. And while the Marines’ margin of 5 percent unvaccinated had been anticipated, it was an unexpected outcome for the Navy, which in announcing its final tally this week acknowledged that officials had uncovered last-minute “discrepancies” with its data-tracking system that revealed a larger pool of unvaccinated sailors than had been projected. As recently as last week, official data showed that 99.8 percent of sailors had at least one shot by last Sunday’s deadline. The true number is just over 97 percent.

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1 in 100 infected with virus in Germany, health minister says — 5:36 a.m.

By The Associated Press

Germany’s health minister said Friday that more than 1% of the population is currently infected with the coronavirus, and he called on citizens to get vaccinated if they haven’t done so yet.

The country confirmed 74,352 new daily COVID-19 cases and 390 additional deaths, figures published by the federal disease control agency showed. According to the Robert Koch Institute’s calculations, some 925,800 people in Germany are considered actively infected with the virus.

Health Minister Jens Spahn noted that the number of unvaccinated residents who are infected and seriously ill is much higher than their share of the overall population.

France detects nine Omicron cases as government eyes tourism hit — 5:33 a.m.

By Bloomberg

France said it has detected nine cases of the Omicron variant, even as President Emmanuel Macron’s government steps in with fresh promises to support the country’s hard-hit tourism industry.

Cases of the new coronavirus variant were found in different parts of France and in the overseas territory of La Reunion, and the country is stepping up efforts to identify and isolate them as soon as possible, health authorities said in an emailed statement on Friday.

Omicron has probably been circulating in the country “for a few weeks,” French Health Minister Olivier Veran said in an interview on FranceInfo radio, adding that the government is accelerating its booster campaign and will review possible new restrictions on Monday. He declined to elaborate.

France’s government has once again gone into crisis mode, with Veran and other ministers warning about a new wave that’s hitting the country more strongly than expected in spite of a high level of vaccination. The new wave “is rising fast,” Veran said.

WHO says measures against Delta work for Omicron variant too — 12:45 a.m.

By The Associated Press

World Health Organization officials in the Western Pacific say border closures adopted by some countries may buy time to deal with the Omicron coronavirus variant, but measures put in place and experience gained in dealing with the Delta variant should remain the foundation for fighting the pandemic.

While a few regional countries are facing surges, COVID-19 cases and deaths in many others have decreased and plateaued, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific Dr. Takeshi Kasai told reporters Friday in a virtual news conference broadcast from Manila, Philippines.

“Border control can delay the virus coming in and buy time. But every country and every community must prepare for new surges in cases,” Kasai said. “The positive news in all of this is that none of the information we have currently about omicron suggests we need to change the directions of our response.”

Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious, as some health authorities suspect, or if it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine.

Kasai said Omicron has been designated a variant of concern because of the number of mutations and because early information suggests it may be more transmissible than other variants of the virus. More testing and observation is necessary, he said.

Key Omicron findings may be known in days, WHO scientist says — 12:43 a.m.

By Bloomberg

Urgent studies to understand how effective COVID vaccines are against Omicron have begun in a global collaboration that may yield answers in a few days, a World Health Health Organization scientist said.

Some 450 researchers around the world have begun work to isolate the highly mutated variant from patient specimens, grow it in the lab, verify its genomic sequence, and establish methods to test it in blood-plasma samples, said Ana-Maria Henao-Restrepo, who co-leads the WHO’s research and development blueprint for vaccines and innovations during outbreaks and pandemics.

“They hope that this will happen within days, but I think we should not put pressure that it should happen within three days — we should say it will happen within the next two weeks,” she said in a Zoom interview from Geneva Wednesday.

The rapid spread in South Africa of the worrisome variant has raised concern that the immune protection generated by vaccination or a previous bout of COVID is insufficient to stop reinfections or stem a fresh wave of cases and hospitalizations. The WHO warned on Sunday omicron could fuel surges with “severe consequences” amid signs that it makes the coronavirus more transmissible.

The work involves testing blood plasma from people who have recovered from a SARS-CoV-2 infection or been immunized with different COVID vaccines to gauge the concentration of antibodies needed to neutralize, or block, the virus. The results will help determine whether or not existing COVID vaccines need to be altered to protect against Omicron.

Omicron coronavirus variant found in multiple US states — 12:12 a.m.

By The Associated Press

The Omicron variant of COVID-19, which had been undetected in the U.S. before the middle of this week, had been discovered in at least five states by the end of Thursday, showing yet again how mutations of the virus can circumnavigate the globe with speed and ease.

Just a day after the first known US case was found in California, tests showed the Omicron variant had infected at least five people in the New York City metropolitan area, plus a man from Minnesota who had attended an anime convention in Manhattan in late November.

Read more

  Dec. 2, 2021  

Missouri withheld data showing effectiveness of mask mandates — 10:22 p.m.

By The New York Times

Mask mandates were effective as the Delta variant of the coronavirus was driving a surge in COVID-19 cases across Missouri, according to an analysis that the state’s Department of Health and Senior Services conducted in early November.

But the state did not immediately share that data with the public. Instead, the information was released Wednesday, a month later, because of a public records request by The Missouri Independent, a nonprofit news organization that reported the findings, and the Documenting COVID-19 project at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation.

Read more

Oklahoma governor, AG sue Defense Department over vaccine requirement — 10:18 p.m.

By The Associated Press

Oklahoma’s Republican governor and the state attorney general filed a lawsuit in federal court Thursday, challenging the COVID-19 vaccination mandate the Defense Department has imposed on the Oklahoma National Guard.

In a statement, Gov. Kevin Stitt argued that the Biden administration’s defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, overstepped his constitutional authority by subjecting the National Guard to the mandate the administration imposed on the active-duty military.

“This week, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin declared his intention to proceed with unconstitutional punishment that individually targets Oklahoma National Guard soldiers and airmen, including withholding their pay,” Stitt said.

The Pentagon couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Thursday on the lawsuit.

Stitt had asked Austin to suspend the mandate for the Oklahoma National Guard and directed his new adjutant general to assure members that they would not be punished for not being vaccinated.

However, Austin rejected that exemption and said any National Guard members not vaccinated against COVID-19 would be barred from federally funded drills and training required to maintain their Guard status.

Most COVID vaccines will work as boosters, study suggests — 10:11 p.m.

By The New York Times

People looking for a booster shot of a COVID-19 vaccine probably don’t need to fret about what brand it is: Many combinations of shots are likely to provide strong protection, according to a large new study.

In a comparison of seven vaccine brands, British researchers found that most of them prompted a strong immune response, with the mRNA shots from Moderna and Pfizer eliciting the largest responses. The study was published Thursday in The Lancet.

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Prior infection is little defense against virus variant, scientists say — 9:59 p.m.

By The New York Times

A past coronavirus infection appears to give little immunity to the new Omicron variant rippling across the globe, South African scientists warned Thursday, potentially tearing away one layer of defense that humanity has won slowly and at immense cost.

Just a week after its existence was revealed to the world, the heavily mutated variant, which scientists fear could be the most contagious one yet, is already by far the dominant form of the virus in South Africa and spreading fast, according to officials there. Top European disease experts said Thursday that it could be the dominant form in Europe within a few months.

Read more

California reports 2nd Omicron case in 2 days — 9:43 p.m.

By The Associated Press

California is reporting its second confirmed case of the omicron COVID variant in as many days.

The Los Angeles County public health department says a county resident is self-isolating after apparently contracting the infection during a trip to South Africa last month. The person’s symptoms are improving without medical care and some people who were in close contact with the traveler have tested negative for the virus and don’t have any symptoms, the department said.

The U.S. recorded its first confirmed omicron infection on Wednesday in a San Francisco resident who had recently traveled to South Africa and developed mild symptoms after returning Nov. 22.

The little-understood variant was first identified a week ago in South Africa and it’s been spreading. Additional cases were reported Thursday in the New York City area, Minnesota, Hawaii and Colorado.

You’re three times more likely to get reinfected by Omicron, South African study finds — 8:44 p.m.

By Bloomberg

The risk of reinfection from the omicron coronavirus variant is three times higher than for any previous variant, according to a South African study of infections since the start of the pandemic.

The finding provides evidence of omicron’s “ability to evade immunity from prior infection,” according to the authors, Juliet Pulliam of the South African Center for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis and Harry Moultrie of the National Center for Communicable Diseases.

The study was based on data collected through South Africa’s health system on about 2.8 million confirmed coronavirus infections between March 2020 and Nov. 27, the authors wrote in an emailed statement. Of those, 35,670 were suspected reinfections.

Read more

Omicron variant confirmed in Hawaii resident — 8:31 p.m.

By The Associated Press

The omicron coronavirus variant has been confirmed in an unvaccinated Hawaii resident with no recent travel history.

Hawaii Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble said Thursday that the adult had been infected with COVID-19 a year ago, isn’t currently hospitalized and had “mild-to-moderate” symptoms including headache, body aches and cough.

She wouldn’t identify the patient other to say the person lives on the island of Oahu.

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Chelsea issues mask mandate as COVID-19 cases rise — 8:18 p.m.

By Jeremy C. Fox, Globe Correspondent

Chelsea, one of the Massachusetts communities hit hardest by COVID-19, will require face masks in all indoor public spaces under a new emergency order, officials said, as cases continue to rise across Massachusetts and the Omicron variant begins to appear in the United States.

The mask mandate applies to everyone over the age of 2 and goes into effect Friday at 5 a.m., according to a Wednesday statement from the Chelsea Board of Health. The statement does not indicate when the emergency order will end.

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Five Omicron cases detected in New York — 6:53 p.m.

By The Associated Press

Multiple cases of the omicron coronavirus variant have been detected in New York, health officials said Thursday, including a man who attended an anime convention in Manhattan in late November and tested positive for the variant when he returned home to Minnesota.

In addition to the conventioneer, health officials said tests showed five other people recently infected with COVID-19 had the variant. They included a person in the city’s Long Island suburbs who had recently traveled to South Africa, residents of Brooklyn and Queens and another case possibly linked to travel.

“No cause for alarm. We just want to make sure that the public is aware of information when we receive it,” said Gov. Kathy Hochul.

NYC to require COVID vaccines for private school workers — 5:58 p.m.

By The Associated Press

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is extending his order requiring COVID-19 vaccines to include teachers and staff at private and religious schools.

De Blasio, a Democrat, said Thursday that employees at nonpublic schools will be required to show they’ve received at least one dose of a vaccine by Dec. 20. The order will apply to about 56,000 employees at 938 schools in New York City.

The Democratic mayor had issued a mandate that took effect in October requiring the shots for workers in the city’s public school system, which is the largest in the country. De Blasio extended the mandates to cover the city’s workforce, including police officers, firefighters and sanitation workers, and broadened the order this week to include child care workers.

“We’re doing everything in our power to protect our students and school staff, and a mandate for nonpublic school employees will help keep our school communities and youngest New Yorkers safe,” de Blasio said in a statement.

Colorado confirms case of Omicron variant — 4:56 p.m.

By The Associated Press

Colorado became the third US state to detect a case of the omicron variant in a woman who had recently traveled to Africa, state health officials announced Thursday.

The Colorado case comes after two other confirmed omicron variant cases were found in California and Minnesota.

Officials in Colorado detected the new case in a woman who is a resident of Arapahoe County, an area just east of Denver. She recently traveled to Africa as a tourist, the state health department said in a statement.

The woman is fully vaccinated, but had not received her booster shot yet, they said.

She is experiencing mild symptoms, health officials said. The woman’s close contacts in Colorado have tested negative, they said.

Antonio Brown, two others suspended for violating COVID rules — 4:25 p.m.

By The Associated Press

Antonio Brown and two other NFL players have been suspended immediately for three games by the league for violating COVID-19 protocols.

The Tampa Bay wide receiver and teammate Mike Edwards were suspended Thursday. Free agent John Franklin III, if signed by a team, is also ineligible to play in the next three games.

All three players have accepted the discipline and waived their right of appeal. The suspensions are effective immediately.

The NFL Players Association, which developed the protocols along with the league, represented the three players during a review of the recent allegations that players misrepresented their vaccination status. Brown, Edwards, a cornerback, and Franklin, a defensive back who last played for the Bucs in 2019, were found in violation of the protocols.

“The health and safety of players and personnel is our top priority,” the NFL and NFLPA said in a joint statement. “The protocols were jointly developed working with our respective experts to ensure that we are practicing and playing football as safely as possible during the ongoing pandemic. The NFL-NFLPA jointly reinforce their commitment and further emphasize the importance of strict adherence to the protocols to protect the well-being of everyone associated with the NFL.”

Delays in US’s genomic surveillance system may have been factor in slow detection of Omicron cases — 3:49 p.m.

By The New York Times

Last Friday, just a day after South African scientists first announced the discovery of the omicron variant, Europe reported its first case: The new coronavirus variant was in Belgium. Before the weekend was out, Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Israel, Italy and other countries had all found cases.

But in the United States, scientists kept searching.

Read more

New York reports most daily COVID-19 cases since January — 3:40 p.m.

By Bloomberg

New York reported 11,300 new COVID-19 cases, Governor Kathy Hochul announced in a statement Thursday. The total marks the highest daily case total since January.

The state also reported total patients hospitalized with Covid-19 rose by 71 to 3,093. There were 49 deaths reported, bringing the total to 46,623.

‘I don’t think we’re back to square one.’ Beth Israel races to find out how much vaccines protect against Omicron — 3:20 p.m.

By Jonathan Saltzman, Globe Staff

Dr. Dan Barouch’s Thanksgiving morning began with an e-mail that made him shudder.

The message had been sent the night before by a computational biologist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. She alerted the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center immunologist and more than a dozen other US scientists to some worrisome new coronavirus variants she was tracking, especially a highly mutated strain first detected in the African nations of Botswana and South Africa.

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COVID-19 numbers have been rising sharply in Mass. These 7 charts show just how fast — 3:06 p.m.

By Martin Finucane and Ryan Huddle, Globe Staff

The possibility that the Omicron coronavirus variant might sweep across the globe has generated alarm and grim headlines in the past week. But even as it has grabbed the spotlight, the Delta variant, which officials say constitutes nearly 100 percent of the cases in the United States, continues to infect people.

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‘The fire that’s here’: US is still battling Delta variant — 3:06 p.m.

By The Associated Press

While all eyes are on the new and little-understood omicron variant, the delta form of the coronavirus isn’t finished wreaking havoc in the U.S., sending record numbers of patients to the hospital in some states, especially in the Midwest and New England.

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R.I. state workers’ union approves new contract with $3,000 COVID vaccine bonuses — 1:27 p.m.

By Brian Amaral, Globe Staff

Members of Rhode Island’s largest state worker union group have voted to approve a contract that includes raises and $3,000 bonuses if they’re vaccinated against COVID-19, the union said Thursday.

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Maine says COVID booster push slowed by pharmacy staffing issues — 1:07 p.m.

By Bloomberg

Walgreens, a critical player in the U.S. vaccination campaign, has canceled some booster-shot appointments in Maine due to staffing issues, a state health official said.

People began reporting the issue on Twitter last week to Nirav Shah, the director of the northern New England state’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Shah said he contacted Walgreens, thinking he could help if there was a supply shortfall.

Instead, the drugstore operator attributed the cancellations to staffing issues, Shah said on Thursday at a press briefing by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

A Walgreens spokesperson said the company has adjusted its pharmacy hours in a limited number of stores to accommodate current staffing needs. Walgreens employees work with patients to reschedule any affected appointments at these stores as quickly as possible, the spokesperson added.

Walgreens, CVS Health Corp. and other pharmacies in the U.S. are playing an even larger role in getting Covid shots into arms than at the outset of the vaccination campaign. Initially, states hosted mass sites that could immunize thousands of people a day. Those have largely been shut down, leaving pharmacies as the most visible and accessible remaining options for many people.

Shah, who is also president of ASTHO, said he’s heard of cancellations at pharmacies across the Northeast, from Maine to Maryland. While the issue has been reported at other pharmacies in Maine, the bulk of the reports are related to Walgreens, he said.

Zimbabwe finds first Omicron case after announcing quarantine — 12:05 p.m.

By Bloomberg

Zimbabwe has identified its first case of the omicron variant of Covid-19, a day after announcing a 10-day mandatory quarantine of all travelers entering the country.

“We are doing the genomic sequencing,” Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, who is also the southern African nation’s health minister, told a meeting of farmers Thursday in the capital, Harare. “We have already identified that we now have it in this country.”

Chiwenga did not provide further details on the origins of the case.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa on Wednesday gazetted rules imposing quarantine on all travelers entering the country, including returning residents. Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans who work and live in neighboring South Africa, which was first to disclose detection of the new variant on Nov. 25., are expected to travel home over Christmas.

“We want everyone to be safe so let’s be vaccinated and then let’s follow the protocols,” Chiwenga said. “We don’t want to end up putting extra measures” in place, he said.

‘Not good at all’: Spike in Massachusetts COVID-19 infections show pandemic isn’t over, experts say — 11:22 a.m.

By Sahar Fatima, Globe Staff

Massachusetts reported the highest number of COVID-19 infections and hospitalization rates in months on Wednesday, and specialists say it’s a grim reminder that the pandemic is far from over.

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Omicron variant detected in Minnesota in vaccinated man who traveled from NYC — 11:16 a.m.

By Amanda Kaufman, Globe Staff

Minnesota has detected a case of the new COVID-19 variant Omicron in a vaccinated man who had recently traveled to New York City for an anime convention, the state announced on Thursday.

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Vermont’s largest city approves mask mandate to fight COVID — 9:39 a.m.

By The Associated Press

The Burlington City Council has unanimously approved a mask mandate to help fight the spread of the coronavirus in Vermont’s largest city.

The requirement that begins Friday includes masks in retail shops and theaters, regardless of vaccination status. Proof of vaccination can exempt people from the rule in restaurants, bars and gyms.

It does not apply to places of worship or schools, which follow separate guidance.

The council approved the mandate Wednesday during a special meeting called by Mayor Miro Weinberger in hopes it will increase vaccination rates in Chittenden County.

The towns of Brattleboro, Rutland and Warren have voted to require masks for indoor public spaces. The town of Hartford has rejected a community-wide mandate.

Burlington councilors did acknowledge that Vermont health officials have said most COVID-19 cases are being spread through small private gatherings, but they hope the mandate will slow the spread of the virus.

Scientists find clues to what triggers rare blood clots in AstraZeneca COVID vaccine — 9:32 a.m.

By The Washington Post

Scientists say they have identified clues to what triggered blood clots in rare cases of people who took AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine.

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Singapore detects two apparent omicron cases, its first — 8:45 a.m.

By The Associated Press

Singapore’s health ministry said Thursday that preliminary tests detected the new omicron variant of the coronavirus in two passengers who arrived on a plane from Johannesburg, the country’s first suspected cases. It said it is conducting further tests to confirm the results.

The ministry said the two Singaporeans were isolated upon arrival on Wednesday and had not interacted in the community.

The results of their polymerase chain reaction test on arrival “revealed the presence of S-gene target failure which may be associated with the omicron variant,” it said.

The ministry said 19 other passengers on the same flight tested negative for COVID-19 and have been placed under quarantine.

It said the two apparent cases are both fully vaccinated and have mild symptoms of cough and scratchy throat.

One is a male who arrived in Singapore from Mozambique, transiting through Johannesburg, it said. The other is a woman who flew directly from South Africa. Both of their pre-departure tests on Monday were negative, the ministry said in a statement.

Omicron could overtake Delta in Europe in months, ECDC says — 8:27 a.m.

By Bloomberg

The omicron variant is spreading so quickly that it could account for more than half of Covid-19 cases in Europe in a few months, a key European health agency said on Thursday.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said its estimate was based on preliminary data from South Africa and the variant’s characteristics still need further study before drawing any firm conclusions.

Globally, there are at least 352 confirmed cases in 27 countries, including 70 cases in 13 European countries, according to public reports the ECDC compiled for its latest threat assessment. There is evidence of community or household spread, but there are still no reports of severe illnesses or deaths.

The agency said that travel restrictions applied to southern Africa should be reassessed regularly and the current measures may delay the variant’s spread in Europe “by two weeks, at most.”

“Given the increasing number of cases and clusters without travel history or contact with travel-related cases, it is likely that within the coming weeks the effectiveness of travel-related measures will decrease and countries should prepare for a rapid and measured de-escalation of such measures,” the agency said.

The first known sequence of the variant was uploaded to GISAID, a global repository, from Hong Kong on Nov. 22. Ten more sequences were uploaded the following day in Botswana and South Africa.

The ECDC said the variant’s mutations may reduce the effectiveness of current antibodies induced by vaccination or infection, but more data is needed.

Despite worries over Omicron variant, Fauci says it’s safe to travel and ‘enjoy the holidays’ — 7:37 a.m.

By Shannon Larson, Globe Staff

With the holiday season underway and a worrying new coronavirus variant rapidly spreading across the globe, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, sought to assuage the concerns of Americans nationwide Wednesday night by assuring them it is still safe to travel, adding that he would not suggest “anything different” from previous recommendations made.

“We just have a problem that’s identifiable now,” said Fauci, chief medical adviser for President Biden, during a CNN Global Town Hall on the coronavirus. “If you have a vaccinated situation, your family’s vaccinated, enjoy the holidays, indoor with your family in a family setting.”

He noted that with travel comes the “somewhat” increased risk of becoming infected with the virus and as a result, those who plan on traveling should continue to take appropriate measures including wearing a mask, getting vaccinated as soon as possible, and receiving the booster shot when eligible.

Read more

Omicron spreading faster than Delta in South Africa — 6:29 a.m.

By Bloomberg

The Omicron coronavirus variant is spreading faster in Gauteng, the epicenter of the latest outbreak in South Africa, than the Delta strain or any of the earlier mutations, an adviser to the provincial government said.

There is the “strongest acceleration in community transmission ever seen in South Africa,” Bruce Mellado, the adviser, said in a presentation on Thursday. This is “consistent with dominance of a variant that is more transmissible,” he said.

South Africa announced the discovery of a new variant, later christened omicron, on Nov. 25 as cases began to spike and the strain spread across the globe. National daily cases almost doubled on Wednesday, days after countries across the world halted flight to and from southern Africa.

Still, said Mellado, previous infections and the fact that about a quarter of South Africans are fully vaccinated may blunt its impact. Government scientists and actuaries at private companies have estimated that between 60% and 80% of South Africans were infected in earlier waves of the virus.

Active cases in the province will likely peak in coming weeks at about 40,000, as opposed to more than 100,000 during the third wave in the middle of this year, Mellado said. Hospitalizations due to COVID-19 will likely rise to about 4,000 compared with 9,500 in the third wave, he said.

India confirms first 2 cases of Omicron variant — 6:28 a.m.

By The Associated Press

India has confirmed its first two cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

India’s Health Ministry says the cases include two men in southern Karnataka state. The ministry says they came from abroad, but did not say where.

Health official Lav Agarwal said all contacts of the two men had been traced and tested for the virus.

India has already classified at least 12 “at risk” and six “ultra-risk” countries in response to the threat posed by the omicron variant.

Some Indian states have issued strict restriction guidelines for international arrivals as precautionary measures, including mandatory COVID-19 tests for those originating from South Africa, Botswana, and Hong Kong.

Biden launching winter COVID-19 booster, testing campaign — 5:27 a.m.

By The Associated Press

President Biden is set to kick off a more urgent campaign for Americans to get COVID-19 booster shots Thursday as he unveils his winter plans for combating the coronavirus and its Omicron variant with enhanced availability of shots and vaccines but without major new restrictions.

The plan includes a requirement for private insurers to cover the cost of at-home COVID-19 tests and a tightening of testing requirements for people entering the US regardless of their vaccination status. But as some other nations close their borders or reimpose lockdowns, officials said Biden was not moving to impose additional restrictions beyond his recommendation that Americans wear masks indoors in public settings.

Read more

South Korea breaks daily virus record for second straight day — 3:50 a.m.

By The Associated Press

South Korea broke its daily record for coronavirus infections for a second straight day on Thursday with more than 5,200 new cases, as pressure mounted on a health care system grappling with rising hospitalizations and deaths.

The rapid Delta-driven spread comes amid the emergence of the new Omicron variant, which is seen as potentially more contagious than previous strains of the virus, and has fueled concerns about prolonged pandemic suffering.

South Korea confirmed its first five omicron cases Wednesday night linked to arrivals from Nigeria, prompting the government to tighten its border controls.

The country will require all passengers arriving from abroad over the next two weeks to quarantine for at least 10 days, regardless of their nationality or vaccination status. South Korea since Sunday had already banned short-term foreign travelers arriving from eight southern African nations, including South Africa, and has now extended the same rules to foreigners coming from Nigeria.

Jung Eun-kyeong, commissioner of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency, said the government plans to conduct Omicron testing on all international passengers who test positive for the coronavirus and will work with biotech companies to develop new tests that could detect the variant faster.

Anyone who comes in close contact with a person infected with Omicron will be required to quarantine for a minimum of two weeks, even if they are fully vaccinated, she said in a briefing.

Merkel to enforce ‘lockdown for unvaccinated’ with COVID surging — 3:49 a.m.

By Bloomberg

Germany is poised to clamp down on people who aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19 and drastically curtail social contacts to ease pressure on increasingly stretched hospitals.

In one of her final acts as chancellor, Angela Merkel will hold talks with Germany’s 16 regional premiers later on Thursday at which they’re expected to agree on new curbs including allowing only people who are vaccinated or recovered into restaurants, theaters and non-essential stores.

According to a draft agreement prepared by Merkel’s office, there will also be tighter contact restrictions for non-vaccinated people, nightclubs will be closed in places with high infection rates and there will be strict limits on the number of spectators at large public events.

“The important thing is that this is virtually a lockdown for the unvaccinated,” outgoing Health Minister Jens Spahn said Thursday in an interview with ZDF television. “The more than 12 million adults who aren’t inoculated is what is creating a challenge for the health system.”

Merkel and Olaf Scholz, the current vice chancellor who is set to be sworn in next week to replace her, will lead Thursday’s discussions from 11 a.m. in Berlin and will hold a press conference after to announce the new measures.

Officials have been forced to act to try to check a fourth wave of the virus sweeping across the country and protect the health system from collapse.

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